New report finds Massachusetts charges monthly probation fees to people who can’t afford them

The state brings in over $20 million in revenue from monthly probation fees each year. The problem? Probation rates are highest in the lowest-income communities.

December 8, 2016


Wendy Sawyer
wsawyer [at]
(413) 527-0845

Easthampton, MA – The state brings in over $20 million in revenue from monthly probation fees each year. The problem? Probation rates are highest in the lowest-income communities, according to a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. Punishing Poverty: the high cost of probation fees in Massachusetts analyzed probation cases and income data for the state’s 62 District Court locations.

“The state is charging monthly probation fees to the people who can least afford to pay them,” said Wendy Sawyer, the author of the report, “and setting them up for failure.”

In Massachusetts, there are currently about 67,000 people on probation who are charged a monthly fee of $50-65. The report explains that it is harder for people who cannot afford these monthly probation fees to succeed in meeting the conditions of their probation. When someone on probation fails to pay their fee, it counts as a “probation violation,” which can lead to more fees, license suspension, arrest, and can even land them back in jail.

The Prison Policy Initiative’s report adds to the growing body of research on the harms of the state’s court-imposed fines and fees. The report follows on the heels of two recent reports by the Trial Court and by the Senate, which explain the problems with court-imposed fines and fees that can lead to incarceration for people who fail to pay.

Punishing Poverty offers a comprehensive look at probation fees, including their roots in 1980s “tough on crime” politics and the problems they cause for probationers and courts.

The report unearths a long-forgotten legislative research brief from 1988 that explains how this policy came to pass. Probation fees were instituted as a misguided attempt to plug a budget in crisis, passed by legislators capitalizing on the “tough on crime” political climate. The 1988 brief also reveals that legislators understood the inherently coercive nature of probation fees.

The state faces a budget shortfall again in FY 2017, but Sawyer argues that charging probationers fees they cannot afford is no solution. “The state needs to recognize that the people in the criminal justice system are among the state’s poorest,” she says. “Fines and fees just make their situations worse, not to mention making more work for the courts.”

Punishing Poverty provides recommendations for far-reaching reforms for the legislature, judiciary, and probation. An appendix includes detailed information comparing each court location’s probation and income data. The most striking findings from the report’s analysis of probation and income data are large disparities between the probation rates of the state’s wealthiest and poorest communities:

  • The courts serving the populations with per capita incomes below $30,000 have probation rates 88% higher than in those serving the populations with incomes over $50,000.
  • Just ten court locations where the population has below-average incomes account for a full third of District Court probation cases.
  • Residents of Holyoke are sentenced to probation at a rate more than three times higher than in Newton. But Holyoke’s probationers can scarcely afford to pay this regressive tax; the average income in that area is $21,671.

The Easthampton, Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization. The organization is most well known for sparking the movement to end prison gerrymandering and for its big picture data visualization “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie.”

The new report, Punishing Poverty: the high cost of probation fees in Massachusetts, is available at:

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