Greenville judge's ruling on probationer fees costs Hunt County thousands

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by BYRON HARRIS

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WFAA

Posted on December 19, 2013 at 12:02 AM

Updated Thursday, Dec 19 at 5:10 AM

GREENVILLE -- Fairness, knowledge of the law, and an even temper are supposed to hold sway in a court room.

But to hear some people in Greenville tell it, anger, harassment, and retribution hold sway in one court in Hunt county, at least when it comes to two men: 196th District Court Judge Steve Tittle and Jim McKenzie, who is the director of the county adult probation department.

The department, formally known as the Hunt County Community Supervision and Corrections Department (CSCD), oversees people on criminal probation in the county.

Judge Steve Tittle took office in 2011. Shortly thereafter, a friend of the judge's, Christina Gaston, was fired from her job at CSCD, the probation department. Jim McKenzie fired her, and ever since, McKenzie has become a target of actions by the judge, which have hurt the probation system's budget and effectiveness, McKenzie said.

"I practice all over northeast Texas," said attorney Joe Weis, who is the attorney for CSCD. "I've never seen anything like this, ever."

Is it a war? "It appears to me, Jim McKenzie said.

It began when Judge Tittle ordered McKenzie to personally appear before him in dozens of cases, even though McKenzie does not supervise individual probationers and does not have specific knowledge of their cases. A ruling by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott this spring found that the judge does not have the legal authority to make McKenzie appear before him.

But Judge Tittle has also moved to squeeze the probation department's pocketbook, by waiving the supervision fees that probationers pay to the department, which is CSCD's primary source of income.

"Those fees make up 70 percent of funding the department gets, so it also hurts the department's ability to supervise the very people who are put on probation," said attorney Weis.

Tittle declined to be interviewed by News 8. He said he could not comment on matters "pending before the court."

A former Hunt County prosecutor, Tittle campaigned for office saying his work there had "kept drug dealers, thieves, rapists and murderers off our streets." But his actions to financially cripple the probation department may be having the opposite effect.

Since the supervision fees also are a form of control the probation department has over people on probation - many of whom have already pleaded guilty to crimes - the waived fees also reduce the efficacy of the entire system, Jim McKenzie said.

So far, Judge Tittle's rulings have cost CSCD $32,000, McKenzie said, and could cost the department as much as $117,000, according to this chart from the CSCD.

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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