BOSTON >> Testifying before a legislative panel Thursday, the state's probation commissioner said a phone call from his sister one day "brought home" for him the issue of probation fees.
Probation Commissioner Edward Dolan said his sister, a retiree who volunteers with homebound people, called him one day after a woman she works with asked her to get a money order for $65 to pay her son's monthly probation fee.
"We worry about where the money comes from and whether that's really what we are trying to achieve here with getting people to be responsible and responsive and pay their debt to society," Dolan said. "And I think the national debate has indicated that well, there's unintended consequences, and not ones that we've intended, so now we're rethinking that. That's I think true for us in probation."
The Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight held a hearing to look into fees and fines imposed as part of the criminal justice system in Massachusetts, accepting testimony from top court officials, advocates and people with personal experience with fees.
"The totality of the problem ... has to do with the sheer financial burden visited on people but also raises the question of whether Massachusetts state government has become alarmingly dependent on extracting money from people who have no money in order to keep significant parts of the state government operating," said committee chair Sen. Michael Barrett. "That's an odd situation to be in, and we don't see the criminal justice issue typically framed that way."
Barrett said while there is significant data on people in jails and former offenders across the country, "we know very little about the total national population walking around having otherwise paid their debts to society who have significant fines, fees, penalties imposed on them that they need to discharge in one way or another."
The committee heard testimony from a man identified as James K., who asked that his full name not be used because he was concerned his background would affect his employment opportunities.
At 19, he was charged on drug offenses in Dudley District Court and a default warrant was issued. Five years later, in 2012, James traveled back to Massachusetts from Kentucky, where he then lived, in hopes of clearing up the warrant. James said he was homeless at the time and and spent the night in a Worcester shelter before coming into court.
Unable to pay the $1,100 he owed in fees and fines, he was sent to jail, where he was paid $30 a day.
"You divide 1,100 by $30 a day, and that's the number of days I spent in jail," he told the committee. "I didn't even have money to buy soap while I was in jail, or deodorant for that matter."
District Court Chief Justice Paul Dawley called James' experience an "extreme situation" and said he would review the case, which he first heard about Wednesday.
Before incarcerating someone for failure to pay, a judge must inform the defendant of the right to legal counsel and then determine that the person has the ability to pay and the failure to pay was purposeful, Dawley said.
In the first 11 months of the 2016 fiscal year, Dawley said, the state's 62 district courts collected almost $55 million in fees paid in civil and criminal cases. For criminal cases, the courts collected over $16 million in probation fees, over $5 million in counsel fees and $2.3 million in default removal fees, he said.
"The role of judges and probation officers in our justice system should never be to serve as debt collectors," Dawley said. "In my view, this role detracts from the more serious obligations we face on a daily bases and often conflicts with efforts to rehabilitate offenders. However, judges are required to operate within the current legal framework that exists that governs the imposition of fees and fines."
Dawley said there are approximately 30 categories for money collection in district court criminal cases, with different types of fees carrying different requirements to be waived.
In January, Auditor Suzanne Bump released findings showing "inconsistent administration" of probation fees across the Massachusetts Trial Court, with instances in which waivers of monthly fees were granted without required documentation and assessments were made against people not on probation.
"To be frank, part of that audit was critical of why we didn't collect more money," Dawley said.
Dawley said judges are faced with a balancing act, weighing obligations under the law with "common sense, frankly, in affording people more opportunities."