Eliminating Probation Fees

During the presidential campaign of 1988, Massachusetts enacted monthly fees on people on probation. Thirty four years later, there is an emerging consensus that it’s time to end them.

In 1988, then Governor Michael Dukakis faced a $400 million state budget deficit as he campaigned for President touting the Massachusetts economic “Miracle.” The last thing he wanted to do was raise taxes. The Washington Post quoted then Senate President Bulger as saying “Some of us were telling the governor, ‘If you weren’t aiming at the White House, these meetings wouldn’t have to last ’til 2 a.m.’ .”

In an all-night session just before the Democratic Convention in Atlanta, the legislature passed “An Act Relative to Certain Revenues of the Commonwealth.” The package tweaked the corporate tax code, increased motor vehicle fines, increased bureaucratic filing fees, and with little fanfare added a new fee on people on probation.

In 1988, the country was still on a punishment binge — increasing penalties for various crimes, and filling up prisons. It is unsurprising that the legislature saw fit to add a fee on offenders as a way to help balance the budget.

As originally introduced, the fee was to be set by the court at one to three days wages. A formula based on wages is hard to compute. Ultimately, the fee was adjusted to a fixed total of $65 per month, including a $5 surcharge. By 2016, the probation fee was bringing in over $20 million per year.

When I began practicing defense law in 2001, one of the first things I came to understand was how burdensome probation could be for offenders — they were set up to fail. For all the reasons they ended up in trouble and on probation, many offenders are unemployed. They have to beg or borrow probation fees. Additionally, they have to comply with a myriad of conditions of probation — curfews, drug testing, regular in-person reporting. They get mired in an unsympathetic bureaucratic system that makes it hard for them to comply and they often end up getting incarcerated for “technical violations.”

Over the last decade, many probation professionals have recognized that excessively complex conditions cause probationers to fail and have moved to simplify the probation experience. At the same time, legislators began to understand how they had criminalized poverty — imposing fees on the people least able to pay them.

In 2017, I filed An Act to Reduce the Criminalization of Poverty, and we were able to incorporate many of the ideas from that bill into the big Criminal Justice Reform package we passed in 2018. In the 2018 bill, we eliminated fees on probationers for six months after release from prison. We also made it easier for judges to waive the fees, eliminating the requirement that they explain their decision in writing and clarifying their power to waive the fees to avoid hardship. The annual take from probation fees fell by sixty percent to approximately $8 million per year in 2021.

With state tax revenues coming in well above expectations, Governor Baker proposed various tax cuts in his Fiscal 2023 budget and proposed to fully eliminate probation and parole fees.

I hope that we can adopt the Governor’s proposal as the budget process moves forward. People on probation will be more likely to succeed and most court professionals will be relieved to be out of the business of collecting probation fees from people who can’t afford to pay them.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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60 Comments

    1. This is an important and positive step in the right direction. Thank you for your advocacy. I hope we will continue to move more toward building resilient, caring communities and any from punitive models that rip apart communities and harm us all.

  1. Thank you for pushing this idea along. I wholeheartedly support it. It makes me mad to think the State has been doing this to people who could use more help, not continued harassment and punishment and deliberate misery sent their way.

  2. I fully support the elimination of this regressive tax. Thanks for leading on this issue

  3. Thank you for your efforts and for bringing us up to date on the issues. I support the proposal to eliminate probation fees.

  4. I absolutely support relieving this burden from people who have already served their sentences or paid their fines. I expect this would reduce our recidivism rates and be one less barrier for people to become integrated members of society.

    I had imagined that parole and probation was supposed to be a way to assist returning citizens to integrate back into society, not be a burden set up for likely failure.

    Thanks Will.

  5. Will,
    I support eliminating the fees. If a person proves unable to pay the fee without risking poverty or homelessness, what are we going to do? Chuck them into jail, at a cost of tens of thousands, just so we can collect $65 a month? This makes no sense.

  6. I support eliminating probation fees. I agree that this sort of punishment disproportionately harms the poor and is not what justice should look like.

  7. Makes a lot of sense. Keep up the good work you do.
    btw Speaking of those who do good work, any way to get Charlie Baker to run for president?

  8. Chalk one up for our better angels.

    Now if The State can eliminate our most regressive tax on the poor, The Lottery, we can start facing the equity in the tax structure.

      1. DCF provided this response:

        For the most part, the Commonwealth/Federal Government pays for the cost of foster care in MA. Though DCF has the statutory authority to collect money from parents of children in its care, we very rarely do so. There are two instances where we seek reimbursement from other sources:

        1.) Children in our custody and care who receive social security benefits – The Commonwealth reimburses itself for the cost of care from monthly social security benefits for children (SSI and RSDI).

        2.) Children in our custody and care for whom we have filed to receive child support payments from the non-custodial parent – The Commonwealth reimburses itself for the cost of care from child support payments received from a non-custodial parent.

        We do NOT seek payments directly from parents in the way described in the NPR article (i.e., we do not charge a fee/send a bill for the cost of care). When children leave care, the Department stops accessing these funds.

  9. Than’s for all the background, Will. Thanks for your efforts. I support the elimination of the fees.

  10. I’ve seen first hand how these fees bring an individual down and like stated in your above article, “they were set up to fail”. This has been a long time coming and I truly appreciate your efforts.
    Thank you!

  11. Thanks Will, probation costs & conditions are another example of a complex America entrenching poverty through fees and bureaucratic webs. Simplify, simplify.

  12. I think there needs to be a balance and fee set so that those who can afford it pay it and those who can’t do not. The court all ready collects financial information and setting a fee for those who’s net income is less than $100,000 to $0 is reasonable. Also people who owe child support should not be jailed – how are they going to make money to pay that child support. Massachusetts is all ready one of the most expensive places to live in the world.

  13. Yes, remove the fee. Also look at building a surplus in an expanding economy so as to have the resources to cover recessionary times.

    1. Me too, I also had no idea this fee existed.
      At one dollar per citizen per year, it probably costs more to collect than it brings in. From the DOC, https://www.mass.gov/doc/prison-population-trends-2019/download (a mass of numbers) it looks like in recent years, about 1300 people are released every year on parole, probation or both. Does this fee also apply to parolees? Anyway, if about 11% (145 people) fail to pay their fee and are re-arrested, incarcerating them would cost as much as the fees take in!

      On the other hand, on average, only one person per month is re-committed for probation violation and only 20 people per month for parole violations, according to the DOC, so we aren’t talking huge numbers. A large percentage of these people are charged with technical violations, which I assume would include failure to pay the probation fee.

      The fee is needlessly retributive and vindictive, while being financially unjustifiable. It is an artifact of the “just lock them up” mentality of the past, an echo of the “Willie Horton” knee-jerk reactions of the 1980s. I applaud Gov. Baker for proposing to remove this and you (and almost all the commenters) for supporting him.

  14. Dear Will,
    Thank you. I had a friend who opted to complete his sentence in prison rather than try to comply with probation. He said it would just be too hard. It’s hard to think what that time cost him in Norfolk and how much we spent to keep him there when he was ready to leave having worked so hard to reduce his risk of recidivism.
    Sincerely,
    Christine O’Neill

  15. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. There is so much the public just doesn’t know or understand and you have repeatedly sought to inform. Yes to this and to other proposals to eliminate unjust incarcerations in the first place, which have historically fallen upon those in our society who have been structurally mistreated the most.

  16. In Massachusetts at least it seems the times have been a changin’ for the better since 1988. Who’d have thought back then that a Republican would be the one to deal the death blow to this unjust and regressive tax on the poorest of the poor? And one imposed by a Democrat out of rank political calculation!

    Thank you, Will, for you leadership on this in 2017 and for all that you’ve done and are doing to restore rights and dignity to the incarcerated!

  17. Thank you Will. It is the right thing to get rid of these fees. The court and probation should try to help people reenter society, rather than make it harder.
    Bill Hudgins

  18. Yes, let’s do all we can to encourage law-breaking in this era of rising crime, including homicide.

    How about no-cash bail too?

    Criminals, the poor darlings, you see.

    Forget the burdens on the victims of crime.

    Thanks, Will.

  19. I enthusiastically support this overdue change in the law. It is in everyone’s best interest to help those on parole get on their feet and become self sufficient.

  20. Good first step. Why don’t we eliminate more state burdens though for people once they serve their time? One example current state level forbids issuing a pouring license if an individual has been convicted of a narcotics violation. Is this really in the public interest. A criminal record already makes it difficult to get a job but not allowing them access to business and professional licenses is just plain cruel. That needs to be the next thing to go.

  21. The only move that I would support would be to reduce the fees to a manageable amount, perhaps reducing the fees by 75%, and hopefully the fees would help defray costs AND impress on the individual involved to aim for redemption.

  22. Thank you for your tireless work on this issue- wholeheartedly support!
    Not sure if i missed it in your post, but are there also provisions to ease the cost of electronic monitoring or ease requirements for people who are homeless and can’t consistently charge their ankle monitors? this is an issue we see a lot with our homeless patients, resulting in warrants and other penalties due to poverty and lack of access.

  23. Fully support you on this, Will and in fact, have just completed a survey to this effect for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which as you are likely aware, also campaigns for elimination of these fees.

  24. I had no idea. Senator, your efforts are making a difference. Respect for shining a light on this excessively punitive and counter-productive money grab. Extra respect for taking on an issue that affects people for whom few have sympathy (often justifiably).

  25. This is long overdue! Thank you for your longtime advocacy on this and so many other criminal justice issues. It’s incredible how many obstacles we have set up that make it harder for ex-offenders to reintegrate back into society.

  26. I am unsure if eliminating fees with violations of probation. If a person has not been convicted of a crime, I would be for it. On the other hand, if a person has committed a crime and has been released early then required payment for probation a os fare once employed or receiving social bemefits. However, if the Commonwealth looks at these funds as guaranteed revenue source then yes, it should be eliminated. I think funds should be applied staffing and directly in communities where the crimes took place.

  27. Will, thank you for bring up the balanced budget scam of 1988. Eliminating fees for people on probation is the right thing to do. This was part of the package so that Michael Dukakis could go to Atlanta with a balanced budget on paper, by enacting fees, raising fees, fines and taxes. This is how they cooked the books hiding the red ink. At that time it proved to me how corrupt Beacon Hill is. Since then I have advocated for a complete overhead evaluation analysis of state government.

    I also remember democrat state representative Jack Flood getting shafted by his own party for disclosing the scam. In 1988 they doubled the cost of the deeds tax stamp, with current real estate prices today this tax still has a negative effect on tax payers. Eliminating the fees for people on probation will correct a wrong created by the Beacon Hill organized crime family.

    Thank you
    Russ Arico

  28. Thank you for this post explaining the context for eliminating fees on people who have paid their debt to society and are trying to get back on their feet. I agree that our system criminalizes (punishes) poverty, and we need to change that ASAP in order to allow people to “come back into society.” Otherwise, we condemn them to a self-reinforcing loop of poverty and incarceration.

  29. I totally support this as it is an action long overdue. We appreciate your advocacy on this in a system that has failed so many. It’s easy for some to judge, but most people don’t plan on having to deal with the criminal justice system, but for one reason or another could find themselves or a loved one in a situation they never dreamed or fathomed. be it due to mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, homelessness and abuse. trauma or despair or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thank you for your efforts on behalf of all.

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