Criminal defendants who cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines could have an alternative to spending time in jail: community service.
The alternative to the controversial practice known as “fine time” is contained in legislation proposed Tuesday by Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. Currently, defendants who are unable to pay off court fees, fines, and assessments can be ordered to serve jail time, “earning” $30 a day until the debt is resolved. The practice has been criticized for mostly affecting low-income people of color.
Under the proposal, a defendant would instead be able to complete community service hours in proportion to the debt owed, an option legislators say would create a fairer system.
Baker said that the bill would result in fewer people being incarcerated because they cannot pay a fine, while ensuring that fees are paid in “a more timely fashion.”
“If enacted, this bill will improve the fairness of how fines, fees, and assessments are administered for criminal defendants, while upholding our laws and the meaningful penalties associated with breaking them,” Baker said in a prepared statement.
Many criminal justice advocates lauded the proposal as a progressive step forward, and Baker’s support elevates the issue and increases its chances of passage in the Legislature.
But some say it doesn’t go far enough to prevent low-level offenders from becoming ensnarled in the criminal justice system.
Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said lawmakers need to focus on decriminalizing low-level offenses.
“The community service alternative is not necessarily the solution,” said Hall. “Community service can be a disruptive alternative for something that shouldn’t have been a crime to begin with.”
Community service potentially “interferes with jobs, job searches, school,” and child care, said Lewis Finfer, director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, which is part of the Jobs Not Jails coalition.
The proposal comes five months after the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee released a report that found the practice of “fine time” seemed to punish the poor.
A 2015 review of 105 defendants who were sent to jail from Worcester, Plymouth, and Essex counties found that most were incarcerated for minor offenses, including automobile violations that did not involve operating under the influence, disorderly conduct, public drinking, or trespassing.
None of the defendants went to trial for the original offense, and 60 percent of the cases were effectively dismissed or disposed of with pretrial probation. Sentences related to “fine time” ranged from one day to 112 days, with roughly half of the defendants ordered to serve two weeks in jail.
The review confirmed “the disturbing persistence of ‘fine time’ in Massachusetts,” said Senator Michael Barrett, a Democrat from Lexington and chairman of the Committee on Post Audit and Oversight. “You can pay your debt to society and still end up behind the eight ball in current law. We have to do something about the gratuitous financial sting.”
In addition to allowing community service as an alternative, the proposed legislation would also triple the daily rate “earned” from incarceration to $90 a day, reducing the amount of time someone would need to be jailed to pay off a fine. The proposal also would allow a judge to waive fees, and/or the community service, and would establish a process to determine whether a defendant has the ability to pay a fine. A judge would be able to send a defendant to jail only after a hearing and a written finding demonstrating a defendant’s “willful choice not to satisfy their obligations.” The bill would also require an attorney to be provided for indigent defendants.
Cassandra Bensahih, executive director of the Worcester-based advocacy group Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organized for Community Advancement, called Baker’s proposal “a great idea,” but said payment plans should also be an option.
“I can’t understand how a person would be locked up because they’re poor,” she said. “Who has lump sums of hundreds of dollars when you’re poor?”
Finfer said the proposal is a mostly positive measure.
“It’s a cliche to say that when people serve time they’ve paid their debt to society, but we saddle them with these fees,” Finfer said.
Finfer said that a person’s criminal record, coupled with court fines and fees “are crippling for people who are trying to move forward in their lives.”Jan Ransom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Jan_Ransom.