Baker-Polito Administration Files “Fine Time” Legislation
Bill to improve fairness will reduce the number of people incarcerated for their inability to pay a fine
BOSTON – Today, Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito proposed legislation that will create an opportunity for individuals to complete community service rather than paying a fine or serving jail time for failure to pay the fine. “Fine time” is the informal name for the process by which criminal defendants who fail to pay fines, fees and assessments may be incarcerated until their debt is satisfied – at a rate of $30 per day. Providing the option to complete community service, rather than pay a fine, will create a fairer system where punishments ultimately better align with their crimes.
“The ‘fine time’ legislation we filed today will incarcerate fewer people for simply being unable to pay a fine, while ensuring that penalties are still repaid in a more timely fashion,” said Governor Baker. “If enacted, this bill will improve the fairness of how fines, fees and assessments are administered for criminal defendants, while upholding our laws and the meaningful penalties associated with breaking them.”
“The current system for imposing fines or serving jail time is capable of negatively compounding a situation well beyond its original intent if an offender can’t afford to pay their penalty obligation,” said Lieutenant Governor Polito. “We appreciate the hard work already done by the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee on this issue and look forward to working with our colleagues in the legislature to enact this law to make the system more fair for those involved.”
The legislation filed today allows defendants who cannot afford to pay a fine to fulfill their debt to the court and community by performing community service. Should certain extenuating circumstances prevent a defendant from either paying a fine or completing community service, the law sensibly empowers judges to grant waivers and establishes a thoughtful procedural process for determining whether someone has the ability to satisfy their obligations.
A court may incarcerate a person only after a hearing and a written finding is issued demonstrating a defendant’s willful choice not to satisfy their obligations. The legislation also ensures a counsel is provided for indigent defendants before a prison sentence is imposed. Should a person be incarcerated for failure to pay a debt to the court, this legislation triples the daily rate from $30 per day to $90 per day, reducing the amount of time someone would need to serve to satisfy their obligation.
“The Senate report confirms the disturbing persistence of ‘fine time’ in Massachusetts. Now comes the hard part: fixing the system,” said Senator Mike Barrett (D – Lexington). “I’m pleased the governor and lieutenant governor agree that something needs to be done. I look forward to working with them very much.”
In November 2016, the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee released a report entitled Fine Time Massachusetts: Judges, Poor People, and Debtors’ Prison in the 21st Century. The Committee’s report reveals that the present system lacks adequate procedural safeguards to protect individuals’ rights and leads to unjust outcomes. This legislation incorporates several of the Committee’s ideas and recommendations.