Punishing Poverty: The high cost of probation fees in Massachusetts


There are 67,000 people on some type of probation in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts’ probation fees disproportionately impact low-income communities and make it harder for people to succeed. People who can least afford additional fees are more likely to be on probation and expected to pay up every month. This report analyzes state probation caseloads at 62 District Court locations and income data for the population of the towns served by each court location. The authors argue that the state should stop using fees to generate revenue from the poorest communities and reverse its misguided and outdated tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s. The report also provides recommendations for how state legislators, judges, and probation officers can contribute to the state’s efforts to reform probation fees.

You can read the full text here. 

Key Findings:

  • 75 percent of people under state correctional control are on probation.
  • Probation service fees cost probationers more than $20 million every year in Massachusetts; probationers are charged $850-$1,300 in monthly probation service fees.
  • Probation fees are one of 24 court-ordered fines and fees that defendants face in Massachusetts.
  • People in the lowest income court locations earn less than half of what people in the five highest income locations earn, but their probation rates are almost twice as high.
  • Courts serving the poorest populations have probation rates 88 percent higher than those serving the wealthiest.
  • People incarcerated for failure to pay have $30 of their debt forgiven for each day spent in jail; it costs the state a lot more to house them for a day.
  • Judges can waive probation fees, but rarely use that discretion; 60 percent of defendants had previously been found indigent, but judges offered waivers, community service, or other alternatives in only in 47 percent of those cases. 
  • Consequences for failure to pay often include additional fees: warrants to appear in court with an additional fee, suspension of license with an additional fee to reinstate it, change or additions to your probation, and revocation of probations.


  • Stop using courts to generate revenue for the state.
  • Stop charging probation fees or lower probation service fees and make payments more flexible.
  • Create more alternative probation conditions and offer services that help people achieve long-term change.
  • Conduct a review of all existing court fines and fees and evaluate their collective impact.
Wendy Sawyer
Prison Policy Initiative