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Report: Probation Fees Hit Poor MA Communities the Hardest

Data from a new report indicates people in Massachusetts' poorest communities are far more likely to be on probation and paying monthly probation fees. (Prison Policy Initiative)
Data from a new report indicates people in Massachusetts' poorest communities are far more likely to be on probation and paying monthly probation fees. (Prison Policy Initiative)
December 12, 2016

EAST HAMPTON, Mass. – A new report says the fees that Massachusetts charges to people on probation are falling disproportionately on those who live in the poorest communities.

Wendy Sawyer, who authored the report for the Prison Policy Initiative, says advocates had long suspected those being hit the hardest by court-ordered fees are least able to afford them.

Now, her group's research shows of the 67,000 people on probation paying the fees, the vast majority live in the state's poorest communities.

"So, the courts that serve populations where the per capita income is below $30,000, their probation rate is 88 percent higher – so, almost twice as high – as the folks in the top bracket, which is over $50,000," she points out.

As an example, the report says residents of Holyoke are sentenced to pay probation at more than three times the rate of Newton residents. Sawyer says for Holyoke residents, whose average income is just over $21,000 a year, the fees amount to a regressive form of taxation.

State lawmakers started to address the issue last year when they ended probation fees for juvenile offenders.

The state currently collects about $20 million a year in probation fees. Sawyer explains when the fees were adopted in the late 1980s, they were meant to plug holes in the budget, not to punish poor people.

She says given the data, changes could be made by the Legislature, so these fees don't continue to fall most heavily on those least able to pay.

"Particularly for these people who are being released from prison, folks who are facing all the challenges of re-entry also have to pay these monthly fees,” she stresses.

“But, they're like, the least likely to have work, they're probably going to have some other court debts that they're working on paying. So, it's going to be even harder for them to pay these fees and try and get their lives on track."

Sawyer notes there is a waiver system in place to exempt people who are too poor to pay their fees, but in practice, these waivers are seldom granted.

The report, called "Punishing Poverty," is online at prisonpolicy.org.


Mike Clifford, Public News Service - MA