Probation fees hit poor the hardest, says report

Court charges seen as barrier to offenders getting on track

MONTHLY FEES CHARGED to those on probation in Massachusetts disproportionately hit poorer communities, a costly obstacle to rehabilitation for those least able to afford it, according to a new study.

About 67,000 people are on probation in the state and are charged a monthly fee of $50 or $65 depending on the level of court supervision. District courts serving communities with per capita income below $30,000 have probation rates nearly twice that of courts serving populations with per capita income greater than $50,000, according to the report prepared by the Prison Policy Initiative, an Easthampton-based criminal justice research and advocacy organization.

The state is “raising this revenue by charging largely poor people probation fees that they can’t afford,” said Wendy Sawyer, a policy analyst at the organization and author of the report. “It doesn’t seem to serve the purpose of probation, which is to get them on track and help them get their lives back together. It’s a second punishment.”

The state collects about $20 million a year from probation fees, which the report says “function as a punishing regressive tax.”

The report says failure to pay the monthly fees can lead to reincarceration or the imposition of further fines and sanctions, including suspension of a probationer’s driver’s license, which creates a further roadblock to employment and meeting other court-imposed conditions of probation.

Based on an average probation term 17 to 20 months, Massachusetts residents sentenced to probation are charged between $850 and $1,300 in probation fees on top of any other court fines and fees, according to the report.

The state began charging probation fees in the late 1980s, a period when state leaders were eager to find new sources of revenue that also coincided with a get-tough crackdown on crime. “The combination of a state budget crisis and a shift in public attitudes towards more punitive policies created the perfect conditions to pass the law,” says the Prison Policy Initiative report.

The study comes on the heels of two other reports that have also focused on the burden court fees in Massachusetts place on poor residents.

A report issued last month by the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee raised alarms over the practice of sending those unable to pay court fees to jail to “work off” their debts under a state law that credits defendants $30 per day in jail toward any outstanding court costs.

The Senate report was followed later in November by a report from the Massachusetts Trial Court Fines and Fees Working Group, a panel established in June in response to recommendations from the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division that states examine policies on court fines and fees because of growing concern over their impact on the poor.

The Trial Court report recommended eliminating fees for those going under probation supervision directly following release from incarceration. For this population, which generally has “limited financial independence or economic prospects,” the fees create “a barrier to successful re-entry and the development of financial stability,” said the report.

The Senate panel recommendations included doubling to $60 per day the credit given for so-called “fine time” — the time spent in jail to work off court debts. The Trial Court report suggested a similar increase, noting that the adjusted for inflation, the current $30 daily rate, which was set in 1987, would today be worth $64.21.

Sen. Michael Barrett, chairman of the Post Audit and Oversight Committee, said there needs to be a reappraisal of the entire fine and fee structure in the court system.

“There is no reasonable justification for some of these arrangements. It’s just a money grab that we legislators went along with over the years because you don’t hear much pushback from offenders or ex-offenders,” he said.

Barrett, a Lexington Democrat, said there is some logic to the idea of probation fees promoting an “ethic of personal responsibility” and giving offenders “skin in the game.” But he said “we dreadfully misapply the idea if the result is an inability to get your life back on track.”

“The arguments of the 80s and 90s weren’t on their face totally unreasonable,” said Barrett. “They just went too far, which is typically what rigid public policies do.”

Judges are allowed to waive probation fees if it is deemed they would cause “undue hardship,” but the Senate report found that judges offered waivers or community service in place of fees in less than half of all cases it reviewed and that judges often neglect to even ask defendants about their ability to pay.

The Senate included language in its budget proposal last year to eliminate probation fees. The final budget agreement with the House eliminated fees charged to juveniles on probation but retained them for adults.

Barrett said he and Sen. Will Brownsberger, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, will file legislation again next year to roll back court fees.

One fee Barrett said makes no sense is a $150 charge to those who are judged indigent and provided with a court-appointed lawyer. The state collects $6.9 million a year in such fees.

Sawyer, the author of the new probation fee report, said she would favor ending all probation fees, but understands that the state now depends on the revenue they generate.

“Once you have the fines and fees in place nobody wants to get rid of them,” she said. “I understand that eliminating them might not be realistic given the budget problem the state is having right now. But at least it needs to be evaluated and looked at again.”