Researcher Studies Effect of Probation and Parole Fines and Fees on Individuals’ Prospects of Success

By Tom McLaughlin

For many paroled inmates, release from jail may signal a new beginning, but their freedom is anything but free.

Link warns that released inmates face an array of financial obligations, which, when unmet, feed a massive system of ‘back-end sentencing’ in America.

Nate Link explains that, when these released inmates attempt to integrate back into society, they typically need to fulfill an array of new financial obligations – monthly community supervision, electronic monitoring, and mandatory drug screening fees, among others – or risk being sent back to jail on technical violations.

“This feeds a massive system of ‘back-end sentencing’ in America,” says the assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University–Camden. “It’s easy to get tripped up and sent back to jail for these minor infractions. So just how much good are we doing these individuals and how safe are we making our communities by sending them away for these petty violations?”

Link and fellow co-principal investigators are now getting to the bottom of these answers, thanks to a new multistate, multiyear study – funded with a $2.7 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation – to examine how probation and parole fines and fees operate, and how these financial sanctions affect individuals’ prospects of success.

The Rutgers–Camden researcher is teaming with Jordan Hyatt, a criminology professor at Drexel University, to conduct data collection and analysis of probation and parole services in three participating counties in Pennsylvania – one of seven states where the research will take place. Under lead investigator Ebony Ruhland, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, the study is also being conducted in Michigan, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Arizona, Texas, and Indiana.

Link and Hyatt are first observing how probation and parole departments enter data, and determining how they can put this data into a usable format for the study.

They will then begin an exhaustive analysis of quantitative data, such as the average debt, the total and demographics of released offenders paying fees and fines, as well as those defaulting on payments. They will also conduct one-on-one interviews with these individuals, their family members, and probation and parole officers.

“Who has this debt, how much do they have, what characteristics do these individuals have, and who can and can’t afford it?” asks Link, a Collingswood resident. “What are the processes by which these fines and fees are assigned? We want to get a feel for the entire landscape.”

According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, there is a steadily growing chorus of researchers and policymakers looking at the nature of back-end sentencing in America. He notes that, when the U.S. Department of Justice conducted its landmark investigation of the Ferguson, Mo., police department in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, a crux of the final report focused on the many fines and fees residents had to pay court systems and law enforcement agencies.

According to Link, some research suggests that individuals who risk being sent back to jail for not paying a fine may be motivated to make money any way that they can.

Link further notes that individuals who have difficulty making payments on certain financial sanctions are, in some jurisdictions, given the option to pay in monthly installments that can carry extremely high interest rates, just below what could be considered loan sharking. Consequently, people who otherwise would have paid off their fines and fees end up owing much more due to the interest accrued.

“You are largely talking about a population that can’t afford it anyway, and now can get thrown in jail if they can’t pay it back,” says Link, who earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology at The College of New Jersey and a master’s degree in social work from Rutgers–Camden.

“In turn,” Link continues, “this could disrupt everything: your life, your family, and your job – if you are lucky enough to get one.”

The researcher adds that, based on the U.S. Supreme Court case Bearden v. Georgia and others, it is illegal to incarcerate someone simply for not paying a fine; rather, it must be proven that he or she has chosen not to do so. Furthermore, before a judge incarcerates an individual, a detailed assessment of the individual’s ability to pay, including their financial and employment histories, must be completed.

However, he cautions, these assessments don’t have standard guidelines, leaving it up to judges to use any metrics that they deem appropriate.

“There are instances where judges have taken note of a person’s tattoo or smoking habit and come to the assumption that, since that costs money, these people can afford to pay their fines and fees as well,” says Link. “That’s hardly what you would call a detailed assessment; it’s just their own observations.”

Moreover, says Link, there is research suggesting that, if individuals are going to be sent back to jail for not paying a fine, then they will be motivated to make money any way that they can.

“Some could end up selling drugs at the last minute or looking for work under the table,” says Link. “We don’t want them working in some alternate, underground economy. We want them working in stable, productive jobs that pay taxes and have a future, instead of unusual odd jobs, some potentially criminal in nature.”

While the researchers hope to gather as much concrete data as possible, says Link, there is some evidence suggesting that this system of fines and fees could act as a deterrent for some individuals, but can be quite detrimental for many others.

“It raises many questions,” says Link. “From both economic and public safety standpoints, is this the best way for law enforcement resources to be used?”

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