Maryland's Parole Supervision Fee: A Barrier to Reentry

March 23, 2009

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Key Findings
About the Authors

From the introduction. Download report for footnotes.

Given the increasing use of economic sanctions by state governments, people entering the criminal justice system are unlikely to leave it without incurring new debt. For example, Maryland law authorizes charges for everything from an individual’s initial arrest, to the costs of a constitutionally mandated public defender, to the costs of the individual’s supervision on probation or parole.

quoteMost of these charges are unrelated to the criminal system’s putative goals of punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. Instead, they are designed to subsidize state budgets. This growing category of debt—created by fees levied to generate revenue—is distinct from fines and restitution, the two more traditional categories of criminal justice-related “legal financial obligations,” or “LFOs.” Fines are the traditional monetary penalty, usually based on the severity of crime, imposed to punish an individual. Restitution, a court-ordered payment by the offender to compensate the victim for financial loss resulting from the crime, is rooted in a restorative justice approach that emphasizes repairing the harm of criminal behavior.  

Revenue-generating “fees,” on the other hand, are assessed not for any criminal justice purpose, but rather to fund state budgets. They are imposed on a largely indigent population, rather than on the general tax-paying populace. And, they are imposed without regard to their impact on the ability of persons convicted of a crime to reenter society after completing court-mandated punishment. The parole supervision fee in Maryland—a monthly obligation of $40 that totals of hundreds of dollars over the course of the parole term—is just such a charge. 

Enacted in 1991, the Maryland parole supervision fee law was part of an understandably popular trend to charge persons convicted of crimes for the costs of their punishment. By 1990, 26 states had implemented probation fees and parole fees. Prompted by increasing costs, reduction of resources, and increased public support for shifting costs to offenders, states increasingly turned to fees not to further penological policy, but rather to raise revenue. Revenue enhancement was the parole supervision law’s primary goal, too. As the Maryland Attorney General stated, “[t]he legislative history files reflect that the primary concern of the General Assembly in enacting the bills was to develop a new source of revenue in difficult economic times.” Although the fee is connected to the individual’s parole status, the revenue generated by the fee does not finance the parolee’s supervision and, instead, is deposited in the state’s general fund, where it is used to finance general state operations.

Nearly two decades after the enactment of the supervision fee, there is a growing awareness of the substantial barriers that persons leaving prison face when they attempt to reenter society. A body of research—much of which has focused on the Baltimore area—has confirmed that persons leaving prison face significant hurdles in obtaining employment, housing and other social services. Many individuals also face financial burdens from staggering child support arrears, drug and alcohol testing fees, and, in some cases, fees for participation in drug treatment and other programs that are conditions of their parole. In short, the parolees from whom the state seeks to subsidize its coffers are often struggling to get by at the most basic levels.

At the same time, there is a growing recognition among policy-makers and the public at large that criminal justice policy needs to promote successful reentry in order to prevent recidivism, protect public safety, and reduce ballooning costs borne by taxpayers for imprisonment. Governor Martin O’Malley has recognized the need to take “concrete steps to make sure offenders who have served their debt to society have the tools and resources they need to re-enter society.” Each year the Maryland Division of Corrections (“DOC”) releases approximately 15,000 prisoners back into the community. Currently 51 percent of those released are reconvicted and return to custody (either for a new offense or for revocation of probation or parole) within three years.

In response to these high recidivism rates, the Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services (“DPSCS”) has put renewed emphasis on promoting successful reentry. In keeping with this focus, DPSCS’s Division of Parole and Probation (“DPP”) pioneered a model of supervision to enable people leaving prison to reenter the community and succeed. Titled, “Proactive Community Supervision,” the approach relies on individualized assessments to identify risks and needs of each ex-offender. Drug and alcohol treatment, mental health treatment, educational assistance, and job skills training are provided, as appropriate. DPP has cut supervision agents’ caseloads so they can spend more time in the supervisees’ communities, working one-on-one with supervisees and building relationships with their families, friends and neighbors. This model has proven successful, reducing re-arrest rates and technical parole violations by 42 percent and 20 percent, respectively. It has demonstrated that such programs can effectively slow or stop the “revolving door” to prison.

The parole supervision fee—which most believe does not further a rehabilitative purpose—is out of step with these innovations that have made Maryland a leader in advancing effective supervision and reentry approaches. Given the massive unemployment rates among parolees, the substantial financial hardships they face, and the undermining effect of new fee debt, this report urges elimination of the parole supervision fee as a revenue source in Maryland. We hope that Maryland policy-makers will reevaluate the wisdom of imposing the fee obligation in light of the findings set forth below. Although this report is confined to Maryland’s particular experience with the parole supervision fee, we believe it will prove useful to other communities attracted to the short-term solution of new criminal justice fee debt when budgets are tight.  

Key Findings

  • 1. When it authorized the fee in 1991, the Legislature knew that most parolees would be unable to afford the fee, and therefore built in exemptions. The Legislature created a set of exemptions for individuals who were unemployed, disabled, obtaining job training, contending with family obligations and undue hardship, or enduring other extenuating circumstances.
  • 2. Most parolees are, in fact, unemployed and unable to afford the fee. Only one-quarter are employed full-time when parole begins. Only one-third are employed full-time when their parole term ends.
  • 3. The system for granting exemptions is broken. Although these exemptions are “on the books” and most parolees would qualify for one, they are not generally used. The fee is routinely imposed on the vast majority of parolees who are not employed full-time and therefore unable to pay.
  • 4. On average, parolees are ordered to pay $743 in supervision fees over the course of their parole terms. Many are ordered to pay other sums as part of parole, such as fees for drug and alcohol testing and community service. Many also have unpaid child support debt.
  • 5. Only 17 percent of the supervision fees assessed are collected by the end of parole. Nine out of 10 individuals have outstanding supervision fee debt when parole ends. In 75 percent of the cases, the debt was turned over by the Division of Parole and Probation to the Maryland Central Collection Unit to pursue collection.
  • 6. Revenue generated by the supervision fee is not dedicated to financing parole supervision. Instead, it is diverted to the state’s general revenue fund, from which it is used to finance any Maryland state government function.
  • 7. Dunning by the Division of Parole and Probation and by the Central Collection Unit pressures individuals, undermines reentry, and is out-of-step with Maryland’s effort to reduce recidivism. Fee collection pulls parole agents away from more important duties such as helping parolees find jobs.


We recommend that the four state bodies administering the parole supervision fee in Maryland—the Legislature, Parole Commission, Division of Parole and Probation, and Central Collection Unit—take the following steps to fix Maryland’s parole supervision fee:


  • Abolish the parole supervision fee outright. The Maryland Legislature should abolish the supervision fee outright in light of the inability of most parolees to afford it, the limited revenue it raises, and the detrimental effect it has on reentry. This is the path that Virginia chose in 1994 after finding that its parole supervision fee undermined correctional goals and was too difficult to collect.

In the alternative, the Legislature should:

  • Implement a sliding scale fee tailored to an individual’s financial circumstances. Those parolees who can pay more should pay more. Those who are able to pay very little or nothing should have their obligations adjusted accordingly.
  • Ensure that the obligation to pay the fee does not commence until a Division of Parole and Probation agent has done an initial assessment of the parolee’s circumstances. The DPP is better positioned than the Parole Commission to evaluate an individual's ability to afford the fees and make payment.

Parole Commission

  • Evaluate exemptions up front. Even without a legislative change, the Parole Commission should conduct front-end evaluation of whether parolees should be considered exempt based on disability, enrollment in job training and other educational programs, family obligations combined with undue hardship, and other extenuating circumstances.

Division of Parole and Probation

  • Direct parole agents to help individuals apply for exemptions. Even without a legislative change, the DPP should reverse current policy, and direct agents to help supervisees apply for exemptions, effectuating the Legislature’s goal of ensuring that qualified individuals receive exemptions.

Central Collection Unit

  • Eliminate the 17 percent surcharge added to parole supervision fee debt. Even without a legislative change, the CCU should eliminate the 17 percent surcharge that automatically enlarges supervision fee debt solely because the parolee was unable to afford the fee during parole. This undercuts reentry and is bad policy.

About the Authors

Rebekah Diller is Deputy Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Ms. Diller coordinates litigation, policy research and advocacy to improve access to justice for low-income people. Previously, Ms. Diller served as a staff attorney and then director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Rights Project and as an attorney representing low-income clients in housing and government benefits cases at Legal Services for the Elderly in Queens and Housing Works, Inc. She received her J.D., with high honors, from New York University School of Law, and her B.A., cum laude, from Rutgers College.

Judith Greene is a criminal justice policy analyst whose essays and articles on criminal sentencing issues, police practices, and correctional policy have been published in numerous books, as well as in national and international policy journals. She has received a Soros Senior Justice Fellowship from the Open Society Institute, served as a research associate for the RAND Corporation, as a senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School, and as director of the State-Centered Program for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. From 1985 to 1993 she was Director of Court Programs at the Vera Institute of Justice.

Michelle Jacobs teaches law at the University of Florida, Levin College of Law. She received her A.B. cum laude from Princeton University in 1977 and obtained her Juris Doctorate from the Rutgers University School of Law- Newark in 1982. Professor Jacobs began teaching after practicing as a criminal defense lawyer in New York and New Jersey. She is currently a tenured professor at the University of Florida, Levin College of Law, where she teaches Criminal Law, International Criminal Law, Critical Race Theory and a seminar on women defendants on the criminal justice system. Her scholarship explores the issue of access to justice for the poor, particularly in the criminal justice context. Most recently, she has focused specifically on the issues of women who are prosecuted for criminal offenses. Professor Jacobs recently assisted in preparing a section of the U.S. shadow report for the UN’s Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination.