In the aftermath of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, we heard a lot about the strained relationship between law enforcement and low-income people of color in that community. Part of what we learned related to a practice in which the local government readily imposed fines and fees for nonviolent offenses, like traffic violations, as a revenue generation tactic. The burdens of this practice disproportionately fell on the poor. While well-to-do residents could simply submit payment and extricate themselves from the snares of the criminal justice system, less well-to-do violators might fail to meet their obligations and end up behind bars. And once behind bars, those people might experience further financial calamity: losing a job, falling behind on rent and so on. It’s not farfetched to claim, as some have, that Ferguson replicated the debtors’ prisons of yore.
Many observers reacted with horror as news of Ferguson’s situation unfolded—horror at the use of the criminal justice system to fill government coffers and, even more, its impact on people at or below the poverty level. But this practice is not confined to Ferguson. In fact, a report issued today by the Prison Policy Initiative in Easthampton, MA entitled Punishing Poverty: The High Cost of Probation Fees in Massachusetts suggests our own state is engaging in a comparable practice when it comes to imposing and collecting probation fees.
As in many states, criminal defendants in Massachusetts are often sentenced to probation instead of incarceration. This allows offenders to remain in the community so long as they abide by various terms and conditions, including regular meetings with a probation officer. In addition, courts must assess “a monthly probation supervision fee.” Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 276, Sec. 87A. According to the Prison Policy Initiative report, roughly 67,000 people in Massachusetts are charged monthly fees of between $50-65. The failure to pay these fees may comprise a “probation violation,” and possibly lead to a revocation of probation and the imposition of a sentence of imprisonment. Notably, the report demonstrates that probation rates are highest in low-income cities and towns. Courts serving communities with per capita income levels beneath $30,000 have probation rates 88% higher than those serving communities where per capita income exceeds $50,000. Here is one stark example of the disparity: residents of Holyoke receive probation at a rate three times higher than those in Newton.
To be fair, the relevant state statute allows for a waiver of probation fees if the probationer can demonstrate that the fees would “constitute an undue hardship.” Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 276, Sec. 87A. If a court makes such a finding, it will order that person to “perform unpaid community service work.” Id. This places many poor people between a rock and a hard place, either (a) struggle to pay the monthly fee or (b) seek a waiver and risk losing wage-earning opportunities because of the time demands of community service.
I applaud the Prison Policy Initiative for shining a light on an obscure corner of the Commonwealth’s criminal justice system. In effect, the poor are subsidizing our government budgetary shortfall through a regressive tax cloaked in the guise of probation fees. This is wrong, and it’s time for our legislature to revise its approach to probation fees.