The ultimate purpose of the criminal justice system should be to hold people accountable for their actions, and to make our communities safer by promoting better behavior. But the formerly incarcerated, after serving their sentences, often face additional and potentially destabilizing financial hurdles upon returning to their communities.
When Americans think of criminal punishments, we sometimes talk about the convicted "paying a debt to society." Jail and prison sentences are thought of as just costs for a person's misdeeds against the common good. But upon release, many of the formerly incarcerated face additional financial and personal costs after they have repaid these debts. Such unofficial punishments are collectively known as "collateral consequences" to criminal convictions. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is looking to eliminate one of these consequences, by ending the monthly fees parolees and probationers pay after their release.
While celebrity court cases make headlines, the vast majority of people caught up in the criminal court system come from the poorer segments of American society. This is important to understand because many of the formerly incarcerated had the least amount of financial security before going into jail, and thus any additional costs put upon them pose an outsized burden to overcome relative to the average citizen when they get out. Moreover, all the time a person is incarcerated is time out of the workforce with virtually no income or savings to restart one's life with upon release. As noted by Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative, all these factors make the monthly administrative fees paid by probationers and parolees a regressive tax on some of the poorest in our society. While many Americans drop $80 per month just buying daily lattes at Starbucks, such a monthly parolee fee may cut deep into the rent or food budget of a returning citizen.
The Globe report about the proposal mentions that eliminating these fees will cost the Commonwealth a few million of dollars in annual revenue, but ultimately this is a small price for Massachusetts to pay. The stress of putting one's life together after a carceral sentence–getting a job and finding a place to live with a criminal record, re-establishing broken family connections, and staying sober–is hard enough without added costs shifted onto them as they try to get back on and then stay on their feet.
Kudos to Governor Baker for this effort to bring relief to Bay Staters who are putting their lives together after paying for their mistakes.