Punishing Poverty: The high cost of probation fees in Massachusetts

Source: Wendy Sawyer, Prison Policy Initiative, December 8, 2016

From the introduction:
In Massachusetts, probation is a much bigger part of the correctional control “pie” than incarceration in prison or jail. Almost three out of four people under state correctional control are on some form of probation. If you are one of these 67,000 people, the state tells you probation is “an opportunity for you to make positive changes in your life,” allowing you to remain in the community, work, and be with family and friends instead of serving time in jail or prison. While this may sound like a great deal, it comes at a price.

Probation service fees in Massachusetts cost probationers more than $20 million every year. People are placed on one of two tiers of probation: supervised and administrative, and they are currently charged $65 and $50 per month, respectively. With an average probation sentence of 17-20 months, a Massachusetts resident sentenced to probation is charged between $850-$1,300 in monthly probation service fees alone — on top of many other court fines and fees.

Probation fees are relics of the 1980s. A result of “tough on crime” politics and a misguided attempt to plug a budget in crisis, probation fees do nothing to further the mission of probation services in Massachusetts. In fact, they work against probationers who struggle to meet the demands of their probation and the needs of their families. With money tight in the Commonwealth again, lawmakers may be tempted to hold on to probation fees for the revenues, but this policy is fiscally shortsighted and morally bankrupt.

A group of state lawmakers and judges has recently called for re-evaluation of court fines and fees, suspecting that these costs unfairly impact the poor and make it harder for people to succeed. This report analyzes state probation and income data to confirm those suspicions, and argues that the state should reverse its outdated and counterproductive policy.