Governor Charlie Baker is seeking to end the monthly fees Massachusetts charges those on probation and parole, targeting levies that court officials, lawmakers, and advocates have argued unnecessarily burden people trying to reenter society and do little to ensure the public is safe.
The proposal, which Baker inserted into the $48.5 billion budget plan he released last week, would eliminate millions of dollars the state collects each year, including from those under supervision after being released from prison or jail. It also puts Massachusetts among a growing number of states that have reevaluated or abolished such fees amid a wider nationwide push for criminal justice reforms.
Nevertheless, the proposed language — and its sponsor, the state’s two-term Republican governor — caught some advocates by surprise.
Baker’s office did not highlight the proposal Wednesday when he unveiled his spending plan, in which the language was tucked among nearly 100 policy sections, or in his State of the Commonwealth speech the night before. Nor had Baker publicly indicated he was considering filing it as he embarks on his final year in office.
“It’s effectively a regressive tax,” said Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative, a Northampton-based nonprofit that released a report in 2016 calling probation fees misguided “relics” from the late 1980s, arguing a tough-on-crime mindset and budget woes helped drive their creation in Massachusetts.
“Democratic governors should be on their toes on this,” Bertram said, “that a Republican has signaled he’s willing to make a very common-sense change that is going to be perceived as progressive.”
Under state law, those released from incarceration on parole must pay $80 in monthly supervision fees, while those on probation — a population that, as of 2020, included 53,000 people under supervision — pay between $50 and $65 each month.
There are exemptions, thanks in part to a landmark criminal justice bill that Baker signed in 2018. Those on parole do not have to pay the fees for the first year of supervision, for example, while those on probation are waived from making payments for the first six months. The courts and the state’s Parole Board can also waive the fees if it determines it would create a “substantial financial hardship” on the person being released or their family.
The changes have helped drive down what the state collects, with funds from probation fees dropping from $20.2 million in 2016 to roughly $7.9 million last year. Parole fees typically total about $200,000 a year, state officials said. Officials said the money is then funneled into the state’s general fund, where tax revenues have repeatedly surged past expectations in recent years, making the fees an even smaller share of the billions of dollars on which the state relies.
A spokeswoman for the Trial Court, which includes the Massachusetts Probation Service, said it supports Baker’s push to abolish the fees. The proposal requires legislative approval.
“The administration is proposing to eliminate these fees to relieve undue financial burden on those re-entering society after serving time in the criminal justice system,” said Tim McGuirk, a spokesman for Baker’s office of public safety.
The fees have been a target of advocates and others for years. Working groups formed by the Massachusetts Trial Court and the Boston Bar Association recommended the state do away with them in separate reports in 2016 and 2017, respectively, arguing they can become onerous and make the challenge of finding stable housing or holding employment only harder for those released from incarceration.
“Parole and probation officers should be allowed to focus on helping those under their supervision succeed, not on collecting money from them,” the Boston Bar Association report read.
A special legislative commission formed to study structural racism in the state’s parole process reached a similar conclusion in December, saying it found no evidence that parole fees actually help reduce recidivism.
“Not only does it disproportionately affect people of color, there really is no public safety reason” for them, said state Representative Andy X. Vargas, a Haverhill Democrat who co-chaired the commission.
Other states, too, have been reevaluating such fees.
California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law in 2020 that bars county sheriffs and police from charging defendants a variety of fees, including for parole supervision. New York Governor Kathy Hochul, also a Democrat, this month proposed eliminating the $30 monthly fee the state charges more than 30,000 parolees, calling them “outdated.”
In Massachusetts, Patricia Garin, the co-director of the Northeastern School of Law’s Prisoners’ Rights Clinic, said she’s had clients who fall behind on fee payments, racking up thousands of dollars in debt while trying to pay for rent and groceries — and facing limited job prospects.
“It’s a big and important step forward,” Garin said of Baker’s proposal. “I might not have anticipated it, but I’m very glad he’s doing it.”
As governor, Baker has often been plunked into the center of the criminal reform debate, sometimes edging into new territory himself and at others, pushing back against Democratic measures he viewed as too extreme.
Earlier this month, he approved commutation requests for two men serving life sentences for murder, making him the first Massachusetts governor to do so in 25 years. In 2020, following protests against police brutality sparked by the murder of George Floyd, he unveiled legislation creating the first certification system for Massachusetts police officers in state history.
But before signing a more far-reaching version of that policing bill, Baker rejected several of the Legislature’s initiatives, effectively forcing Democratic lawmakers to adopt changes he was seeking and deliver back to Baker a version advocates argued watered down key reforms.
State Senator Jamie Eldridge, the chamber’s chairman of the judiciary committee, said he credits Baker’s selection last year of Terrence Reidy as his new public safety secretary, saying the former prosecutor has been an advocate for “more progressive reforms” from within Baker’s administration.
“He recognizes the fact that the system has a number of inequities, particularly around the burdens of Black and brown people,” the Acton Democrat said of Reidy. Eldridge, who also co-chaired the commission studying racism in the parole process, said he, too, supports eliminating the probation and parole fees as part of the Senate’s own budget proposal, which is expected in May.
“I’m certainly hopeful the Senate will include this,” he said.