BOSTON >> Massachusetts judges would have new discretion over whether to impose fees on probationers under a budget rider adopted by the Senate on a 31-7 vote Thursday.
"We need to make it possible for people to get back on their feet, get out of the system, start living their normal life," Sen. William Brownsberger, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told the News Service after the vote.
Brownsberger said judges now can waive probation fees if they make a "written finding of hardships," and the language adopted by the Senate would "make it clear that it's up to the judge."
In January, Auditor Suzanne Bump found administration of probation fees and community service requirements was inconsistent among 16 courts surveyed.
"Fair and equitable treatment under the law is at the heart of our criminal justice system but our audit found that rather than justice being impartial, the fate of many residents has instead been a matter of geography and dependent on which court supervised them during their probation period," Bump said in a statement at the time. She said, "Inconsistency in assessing or documenting waivers of the required fees means the Trial Court, through its district court locations, may not be collecting the revenue it should."
Referencing the controversial reliance on court fees in Ferguson, Missouri, Brownsberger said the roughly $20 million in Bay State probation fees goes into the general fund and judges should not concern themselves with revenue collection.
"This isn't quite Ferguson where the courts were living and dying on how much in fees they could collect, but there is pressure on the judges of a financial nature to collect these fees," Brownsberger said. He said, "That pressure shouldn't be there. This should be based on criminal justice policy as opposed to revenue-raising considerations."
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who joined the opposition to the bill, questioned why the requirement for a written ruling should be abandoned and argued the amendment would offer no guidance to judges.
Joining the six Republican members in opposition to the amendment was Sen. Michael Moore, a Millbury Democrat.
The amendment would address an issue that Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants raised in an annual address in October. The chief justice said supervised probation costs defendants $780 per year in addition to other potential fees.
"Collection is difficult, and we are asking probation officers to take charge of this collection, and to allege a violation of probation where a defendant fails to pay," Gants said, according to his written remarks. "And the law requires yet another payment of a $50 fee when a default warrant is issued because of a defendant's failure to pay."
The amendment also says that failure to pay a court fee cannot be the basis for a probation violation or the reason for incarceration or extension of probation.
"I think it's pretty frequently the basis of a violation, but often the disposition is they are ultimately waived or probation is extended, but that's a lot of churning in the system," Brownsberger said. He said people on probation have "one foot on a banana peel" and find it difficult to "extract themselves from the system."
Massachusetts Communities Action Network Director Lew Finfer said the change would be "significant," and said there are 77,000 people on probation.
The amendment will be added to myriad spending and policy issues that a six-member House-Senate conference committee will need to settle before sending a fiscal 2017 budget bill to Gov. Charlie Baker this summer. The new fiscal year begins on July 1.