Debt incarceration hits the poor the hardest

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BOSTON — Consider this: You are fined as punishment for some offense. You can't pay this fine and wind up in jail. Upon release you still don't have the money to pay the fine or the means to avoid the behavior you were fined for in the first place. You are penalized again, but this time you face twice the fine and double the jail time.

Cycles like these are an unfortunate reality for many in Massachusetts, according to Lois Ahrens, the founder of The Real Cost of Prisons Project.

"You can't jail people for being poor, but that is what's happened," she said.

The U.S. locks up more people per capita than any other nation, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Despite Massachusetts' progressive reputation, the commonwealth is no exception.

The Bay State locks up a disproportionate number of residents from smaller, more disadvantaged cities and towns, according to research by Jessica Simes, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University.

These results are consistent with existing research that shows locations with greater populations of minorities and economically disadvantaged households have higher incarceration rates.

But Simes found that almost half of the state's roughly 14,500 prison admissions came from only 15 percent of its census tracts, a geographical area similar to a neighborhood.

The majority of Brockton, Fall River and New Bedford's neighborhoods have the highest levels of incarceration in the state, while other areas are barely touched by the criminal justice system.

Across the state, an average of 2.7 out of every 1,000 residents are sent to prison. In small cities and suburbs whose population is at or below 90,000, the rate is much higher. Pittsfield's rate is twice that of Boston's 4.5. Municipalities like Fitchburg, Springfield, New Bedford, Fall River and Barnstable are all above the state average.

There has been a notable decrease in the Massachusetts Department of Correction population over the last five years, according to Massachusetts' most recent Prison Population Trends report. The Department of Correction attributes this decrease to reentry initiatives and sentencing reforms passed in August 2012.

But most of the people going to prison are still from economically depressed places.

Advocates say many people who end up in prison come from communities suffering from poverty and material hardship and say we need to do more to keep the impoverished and minority populations from incarceration.

Both the House and Senate took up criminal justice reform this year, each producing their own packages addressing the system after many organizations and researchers came together to stress the impact incarceration has on communities and families.

"Not a single household is untouched by the criminal justice system," Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, said at a Statehouse rally for the Senate bill in October. "Families' strength is eroded and their strength is worse afterward. Teachers are exhausted from taking on so many roles because support systems are gone. I see mothers frown in fatigue as they take buses to two minimum wage jobs and errands before they start over again."

"The main driver for these incarcerations is bail," said Ahrens of the Prison Project, adding "the only reason most of these people are being held is that they're poor."

Individuals in Massachusetts are held pretrial when they are unable to post bail, which is designed to ensure a defendant appears for court proceedings. A judge sets the amount to be paid, a defendant or someone on their behalf pays the bail in cash to a courthouse, jail or police station, and the money is returned once the case closes. However, in Massachusetts, unless one pays bail to a courthouse during the day, a nonrefundable $40 commissioner fee is charged.

"It's supposed to force people to return, but all it does is force low-income people to serve pretrial sentences," said Atara Rich-Shea, manager of operations at the Massachusetts Bail Fund, which spends between $20,000 and $25,000 a month posting bail in seven counties.

"We have posted bail as low as $25. Which is disgusting," said Rich-Shea, adding the commissioner fee just deepens the cut.

"It's a cost families don't get back," said Rich-Shea, adding that while bail is paid in cash it's returned via check, making it hard for people without easy access to a bank to get the money quickly or be forced to redeem at a check cashing facility with yet another service fee.

"These seem like small indignities, but they are actually large when we're talking about people with fixed, low or no incomes."

Ahrens says Massachusetts has made progress on bail already, referring to the state Supreme Judicial Court's August decision requiring that a judge consider a defendant's financial resources in setting their bail and setting strict requirements before a judge can impose bail a defendant can't afford.

"But we need to go further," she said, adding she supports reform efforts in states like New Jersey which has eliminated most cash bail entirely. This is important, she noted, because it costs taxpayers to hold people.

The average cost per year to house an inmate in the Massachusetts Department of Correction is $53,000.

Both the House and Senate bills issue guidelines consistent with the SJC ruling, disallowing judges from setting bail unless they believe it is necessary to assure a defendant's appearance in court.

For many advocates this provision brings no applause.

"On its face, this bill isn't reform, but expansion," said Rich-Shea adding that if judges set a bail someone can't afford, they just need a reason why - and the bill expands the list of possible reasons, citing language in both bills making dangerousness hearings available in more cases.

But Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, says this expansion won't result in a net increase in incarceration for dangerousness, but rather it will reduce the abuse of bail.

"If judges feel that they have to hold people to protect the public, but we don't give them a workable mechanism to do it, they will just continue to set exorbitant bail. This will undermine the credibility of the other changes designed to assure the release of relatively harmless people who cannot afford bail," he said.

Rich-Shea argues this is just a hope within the Legislature that judges and prosecutors will do better, but nothing in the bills forces them to do so.

Brownsberger admitted that much of what happens in the criminal justice system is up to individual judges and prosecutors, but that the bill is meant to send a strong message about how they should act.

"All of these are adjustments and they all make a difference, but not one of them is a magic bullet," he added.

The Senate bill also creates a new pretrial services initiative within probation services to remind defendants to return to court and help them address life issues. Brownsberger hoped these will increase the probability defendants return to court and in turn give judges less incentive to set cash bail.

The Legislature also plans to eliminate or reduce many fees and fines imposed on indigent defendants. Both bodies allow probation fees to be waived if they are unaffordable and triple the rate at which fines are worked off. The Senate bill eliminates counsel and parole fees entirely.

A joint conference committee, headed by the co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee, will negotiate a compromise criminal justice bill.

The Senate measure goes the farthest to rein in practices that advocates say have led to widespread incarceration, disproportionately locking up black and Latino individuals, and as Simes has discovered, from certain areas.

The more modest House bill is supported by the Massachusetts District Attorney's Association. Nine of the state's 11 district attorneys signed a letter in October arguing the Senate legislation undermined "the cause and pursuit of fair and equal justice for all, largely ignores the interests of victims of crime, and puts at risk the undeniable strides and unparalleled success of Massachusetts."

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