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A System Where Everyone Loses

Maryland and other states have created a lose-lose situation—funding court and correctional systems by levying fees on those unable to pay them…

  • Alice Hsieh
March 27, 2009

Maryland and other states have created a lose-lose situation—attempting to fund court and correctional systems by levying fees on people who are unable to pay them.

States have increasingly turned to justice system “user fees” to cover funding shortfalls.  But, the superficial appeal of making prisoners and those with criminal convictions pay their way through the correctional system is proving to be bad policy on all fronts.  Legal financial obligations imposed on ex-offenders keep them in an endless cycle of debt and probable payment failure.  The Brennan Center’s new report, Maryland’s Parole Supervision Fee: A Barrier to Reentry, found that despite the fact that 76 percent of prisoners are unable to find full-time employment at the time of release, the state of Maryland still requires every parolee to pay $40 a month to cover the expenses of his or her parole supervision, often with a 17 percent surcharge if payments are late enough to trigger transfer to the state’s debt collection unit.

Though $40 may not seem like much, $40 is the median amount of money parolees had in-hand at the time of release.  Many parolees are dependent on financial support from family, and 39 percent have one or more dependants who rely on them for financial support.  While fee exemptions for those unable to pay exist, in practice, they are rarely granted.

The states themselves also lose.  In Maryland, a mere 17 percent of the parole supervision fees assessed are ever collected, raising state revenue by only around $350,000 annually.  However, Maryland and other states with similar fees continue to expend precious time and money on various collection efforts.

In response to concerns over parolees and probationers failing to meet their legal financial obligations, an experimental study on the New Jersey court system tested the effectiveness of using harsh enforcement methods, like the threat of incarceration, to encourage payment.  The study found that, “[o]n average, the added amount of money that would be expected from payment . . . would not offset the cost in probation ‘work hours.'”  If the incarceration sanctions were actually imposed, “[t]he cost on the system would far outweigh the possible financial benefits gained.”

Maryland’s parole supervision fee, and the growing number of legal financial obligations across the country, place the burden of generating revenue for the state squarely on the shoulders of those least able to pay, creating insurmountable debt for those with criminal convictions while doing little to pull state bank accounts out of the red.  The net result of parole fees?  A real loss on both sides.