Inmates released from prison who are placed on probation should not need to pay fees for their supervision, the chief justice of the district court said Wednesday.
"The imposition of a fee at that point in time, a probation fee, is counter to rehabilitative efforts, and we've seen some evidence it interferes with employment, with housing," District Court Chief Justice Paul Dawley told the Governor's Council during a hearing.
Dawley led a court system working group on judicial reforms, producing a report Nov. 17 that the chief justice said had been shared with Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg.
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"It's been positively received by all three," Dawley said Wednesday.
The Big Three have also collaborated with Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants on developing a justice system reform package for next session.
Policymakers are eyeing ways to reduce recidivism, cut down on incarceration and related costs, and deliver more supports to individuals before and after they are released from jails and prisons. Revenue constraints loom as a potential obstacle to more expansive pre- and post-incarceration services, as state officials are in the midst of a midyear budget reductions and the appetite for new or higher taxes on Beacon Hill appears low.
On Tuesday the Jobs Not Jails coalition rallied in Boston for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes while worrying that the coming reforms would only result in "tinkering" with the laws and changes to probation and parole.
On Wednesday, appearing on behalf of attorney Sarah Ellis's nomination to the Woburn District Court, Dawley said state laws currently force the assessment of certain fees on defendants regardless of their ability to pay.
"There are some statutes that exist now that make it very difficult for judges," Dawley told Councilor Robert Jubinville. "In fact there are some statutes, as you know, that take away any discretion of the judge to actually waive a fee or fine. The law is very clear."
The working group suggested new court policies and proposed legislation in response to recommendations from the U.S. Department of Justice, which concluded that the criminal justice system in Ferguson, Missouri had "deprived people of their constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and other federal protections."
In public speeches, Gants has also questioned the fees imposed on defendants.
According to the working group, people placed on probation are charged either $65 or $50 per month. In some cases, defendants released from incarceration can be assessed monthly fees for both parole and probation supervision, according to the report.
The group, which was led by Dawley and counted Ellis as a member, recommended the court explore the feasibility of allowing defendants to establish payment plans, develop a remote-access electronic payment system, and adopt a policy requiring judges to appoint attorneys for indigent defendants in proceedings when the enforcement of fees and fines related to a criminal case could lead to incarceration.
A person can be incarcerated for non-payment when a judge finds the person was able to pay and willfully failed to pay, according to the report, which says "the judge should consider alternatives to incarceration."
In fiscal 2016, the Trial Court collected $99.9 million in fines, fees and court costs in 30 collection categories, while also assessing $73.9 million in restitution, and ordering $1.4 million in forfeited bail money turned over to the General Fund.
"There's no judge in our system that wants to sit there all day and collect money," Dawley said.
Jubinville recalled a time he spent in court in recent months where he saw a judge repeatedly order people to be locked up for failure to make payments.
"Five straight people got locked up in a row," Jubinville said. "I said to the court officer sitting next to me, 'This is like the French revolution. Step up and off with their heads. Into the lock-up.'"
The working group suggested changes to the "several statutes" that prohibit judges from ordering waivers on specific fines and fees. As an example of a non-waivable fee it would like to see changed, the group noted a $250 head injury assessment for driving under the influence of drugs or liquor.
The group wants changes to a law last amended in 1987 that applies to people incarcerated for failing to pay fines. Current law allows people to "work off" the amount they owe, receiving $30 off the balance owed for every day incarcerated. The working group calculated that $30 in 1987 would be worth $64.21 today. The working group also recommended development of a single standard that could be used by a judge in determining whether to waive a fee based on a person's inability to pay.