Editorial: State probation fees need reform

  • The old Hampshire County Courthouse is shown Oct. 19, 2016, at the corner of Main and King streets in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 12/13/2016 11:51:27 PM

The Prison Policy Initiative last week released an eye-opening report revealing a flawed system of probation fees that penalizes poor people and is driven more by the state’s need to produce revenue than by sound judicial practices. The Massachusetts Legislature should enact reforms during its next session beginning in January.

“Our analysis confirms that probation rates are highest in the poorest parts of the state, and lowest in the wealthiest areas,” according to the report issued by the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Easthampton which since 2001 has researched the impact of incarceration in the United States. “People in the poorest district court locations are on probation at a rate almost twice that of people in wealthiest court locations.”

The report analyzed probation caseloads at the 62 district courts in Massachusetts. Some 67,000 people placed on one of the two types of probation, supervised and administrative, pay a monthly fee of $65 or $50, respectively. As of January, there were 727 probationers in Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, 579 in Northampton District Court and 572 in Greenfield District Court.

Probation is an alternative to serving time in jail which allows an offender to remain in the community, with conditions imposed by the court that may include community service, counseling and random tests for drug and alcohol use. Supervised probation includes regular reporting in person to a probation officer, while that is not required for administrative probation. With an average probation sentence of 17 to 20 months, the fees total between $850 and $1,300, which must be paid in addition to other court fines and charges.

The Prison Policy Initiative points out that the rigid fee system does not take into account that many probationers are among the state’s poorest people who are unable to afford the additional costs. The report cites the disparity between the Holyoke District Court, which serves the per capita lowest-income people in Massachusetts, and the Newton court, which serves the wealthiest.

“Because of its high probation rate, Holyoke handles 56 percent more probation cases than Newton, even though it serves less than half as many people. But Holyoke’s probationers can scarcely afford to pay; the average income in that area is $21,671, which is below the poverty threshold for safety net services such as reduced-price school lunches and food stamps,” the report finds.

While judges have the discretion to waive probation fees, they do so inconsistently and not frequently enough, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. It cites a recent state Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee report which found that “although 60 percent of their sample’s defendants had previously been found indigent – and all of them ended up defaulting on court debts – judges offered waivers, community service or other alternatives in only 47 percent of cases. Distressingly (the Senate committee and a separate state auditor’s report) found that judges often do not document or even inquire into the ability of a probationer to pay fees.”

Even so, the state collects more than $20 million annually from people placed on probation, largely because those who don’t pay face penalties including suspension of their license and jail time.

However, the fees are not used to directly aid victims of crimes or broaden services for probationers. Rather they go to the state’s general fund. “This policy is quite openly just about generating revenue from an already disadvantaged population,” the Prison Policy Initiative concludes.

Its report points out that Massachusetts adopted probation fees in 1988 because of a fiscal crisis requiring new sources of revenue combined with a “tough on crime” atmosphere, and the Legislature during the next two decades “expanded the fee and limited judicial discretion.”

However, legislators may be prepared to consider whether changes are needed. State Sen. Michael J. Barrett, chairman of the Post Audit and Oversight Committee, told Gazette reporter Emily Cutts last week that the the Prison Policy Initiative report is a “very valuable reminder that probation fees are a hugely regressive tax on largely, mostly poor people.”

He added, “We need to take another run at the issues supported by PPI’s research.”

We agree and hope that the Legislature makes changes including lowering fees and allowing judges to impose them only in cases where there is documented evidence that a probationer is able to pay the charge.

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