The authors of a 1988 report to Massachusetts lawmakers exploring the idea of imposing fees on probationers acknowledged that the policy “might seem more in keeping with the correctional philosophy of, say, Texas, than the more liberal Bay State.”
This, it seemed, was criminal justice as cash register.
But amid the tough-on-crime zeitgeist of the period and the pressure of a state budget crisis, they wrote, the proposal could “prove irresistible.” It did. Two weeks after the report’s submission, the state Legislature approved monthly probation fees. And they’re still in place.
A new report from the Easthampton-based Prison Policy Initiative walks through that ignominious history and provides the clearest evidence yet of something advocates have long suspected: Probation fees fall most heavily on those least able to afford them.
An analysis of 62 District Court jurisdictions found that probation rates — the number of cases per 100,000 residents — were nearly twice as high for people living in the poorest areas as for those living in the wealthiest.
The fees, which can reach as high as $1,300 over the life of a typical 17-to-20-month probation sentence, are just one of several imposed by the courts. There are indigent counsel fees, GPS monitoring fees, and victim-witness fees. And, together, they can place substantial burdens on low-income offenders trying to put their lives together.
That’s money that can’t go to job interview clothes, or bus fares, or rent. And a failure to pay the courts can be even more damaging; a recent report from a state Senate committee explored the phenomenon of “fine time” — jailing defendants who do not pony up.
All this research, put together, can lead to only one conclusion: When the state Legislature takes up criminal justice reform next year, it must make a serious effort to reduce the financial burden on offenders.
Probation fees represent, perhaps, the biggest burden of all. And they should be eliminated altogether. But if the revenue they generate, about $20 million per year, is too much to give up at once, legislators should take some half-steps. They could lower probation fees, for instance, or get rid of them for the offenders just released from prison.
Something must be done. Almost 30 years ago, Massachusetts lawmakers put probation fees in place for all the wrong reasons.
Their successors must at least start to make it right.