It’s harder to get parole in Mississippi now that the state parole board is quashing applications. But should you manage to get past the state’s new “anti-parole” board, you will find yourself with a host of monthly fees and charges waiting for you and your family.
Joanna Weiss, co- executive director of national advocacy group Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC) called the extensive charges a hidden tax.
“There’s no other name for it, and it’s a tax that the citizens didn’t get to vote on or consider,” Weiss told The Lighthouse. “But the other problem is trying to get money from the people who are least likely to have it. We tax them and we expect them to support government, but they’re an unreliable source of funding. We’re talking about a population that is severely underemployed, and when they are employed, it is almost always in very low wage jobs.”
The Fines and Fees Justice Center released a report last year outlining the financial burdens awaiting the formerly incarcerated trying to cling to honest work and stay legal after prison release. It turns out that one in every 75 Americans are under probation or on parole supervision. However, most states charge supervision fees “ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars,” according to the organization. In addition to parole fees, those who were formerly imprisoned must also contend with additional programming fees for mandatory mental health counseling, addiction counseling, drug testing and electronic monitoring. In many states, if they can’t afford to pay their probation and parole fees, they run a risk of being re-incarcerated, or getting their costly supervision extended.
Probation fees alone run $55 a month in Mississippi, and the state makes every effort to collect it. Just last year, legislators passed a law requiring employers to submit timesheets, proof of employment and drug tests to a parolee’s parole supervisor, in lieu of in-person or electronic meetings. The state also mandates the employer “withhold statutorily required fees from an offender's paycheck” and pay fees directly to the state Department of Corrections.
Other states, like Alabama, demand a $40 monthly parole supervision fee. It mandates the parole fee does not absorb more than 25% of the gross monthly income of the person on parloe. However, in most cases, that fee joins other potential monthly fees, including a $30 monthly pre-trial services fee and a $150 monthly drug court supervision fee, in addition to an $8-a-day electronic monitoring fee, if necessary, and other costs.
“The hidden tax scheme is as counterproductive as it is inefficient,” said Weiss.
“Many of these people are making under $12,000 a year,” she said. “If that’s the population that we’re expecting to fund government, then we are going to fail. And in the process, we’re going to make it nearly impossible for these low-wage workers—the same ones trying to support themselves and their family—to stay out of the criminal system. We’re hurting the community. We’re hurting how government is supposed to function, and we’re making it almost impossible for people to survive and support their families, which is really to everyone’s detriment.”
Two of every three people on probation earn less than $20,000 per year, with nearly 40% of those generating less than $10,000 annually, claims FFJC. In many cases, the onerous fees chasing poverty-level early release prisoners and their families don’t even go directly to the parole or probationary supervision budget. Money from Alabama parole fees is allegedly dumped into the state’s general fund, according to critics.
Those on parole can incur new debt by failing to make payments, but their payment schedule can be years long even without the justice system giving them new late fees and penalties.
“I was on probation for 10 years, and despite working two jobs, I could barely afford to survive because of my probation fees,” said Amanda Strickland, a formerly incarcerated person who is now a Social Media Fellow at REFORM Alliance. “I would often fall behind on payments and would face the difficult choice of paying my fees or paying bills and providing for my children. At one point, I tried to go back to school and pursue a degree, but because I had to work full-time to afford my fee payments, I could not juggle my mandated rehab courses, work, college, and motherhood.”
Strickland said falling behind in payments led to becoming “sick with shame,” and it haunted her with “a deep fear” she would be separated from her children and reincarcerated. Rather than acting as an incentive against recidivism, Strickland said the stress and burden of being hounded by bills trapped her in poverty and forced her to stay in an abusive marriage.
“It wasn’t until I completed my probation that I was able to establish my independence, finish my bachelor’s degree and truly flourish,” she said.
“We need to stop using the criminal system as a piggy bank,” added Weiss. “It doesn’t work. It’s counterproductive, it’s unreliable, and we’re causing way more harm than any revenue that’s gonna come from it. It often costs more to collect these fees than we’re generating from them.”
Some counties and states are catching on to the problem. In 2020, Minnesota’s Ramsey County eliminated all probation fees. Jan Scott, assistant deputy director for Adult Services for Ramsey County Community Corrections, claimed the fees “undermined the success of people on probation and placed additional economic hardship on our clients."
But critics also claimed the fees distorted the Department's budget. "In the end we realized that the revenue we expected from fees in our budget was unrealistic because people couldn’t pay the fees,” Scott wrote.
Now a February 2023 report suggests it doesn’t matter who’s paying the bill, be it you or your parents. Fines and fees share a connection with future acts of delinquency in youth, just as it does with adults. New research out of Florida reached a host of conclusions about the damaging role fines and fees play in upsetting the life path of Black and brown youth caught in the penal system.