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Baker Files Legislation To Limit Jailing Of Defendants Who Can't Pay Court Fines

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Defendants who can't afford to pay court fees or fines would be able to perform community service to cover their debt instead of serving jail time under a bill Gov. Charlie Baker is filing Tuesday.

The legislation would address a practice known as "fine time," in which defendants who fail to pay fines, fees or assessments related to the justice system are incarcerated until their debts are satisfied.

Baker said that if the bill passes, the state will "incarcerate fewer people for simply being unable to pay a fine, while ensuring that penalties are still repaid in a more timely fashion."

"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 governor said in a statement.

Baker plans to file the bill with the Senate, a spokesman said.

Last November, the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight released a report looking at 105 instances of "fine time" in Essex, Plymouth and Worcester counties. The committee, chaired by Lexington Democratic Sen. Michael Barrett, found 60 percent of the individuals studied had at some point been verified as indigent and said 67 people who were imprisoned owed less than $500.

In a statement released by Baker's office, Barrett said he was "pleased the governor and lieutenant governor agree that something needs to be done."

Addressing fine time is among the issues senators have pegged as a priority in criminal justice reform. In a speech to his colleagues at the beginning of the legislative session, Senate President Stan Rosenberg called the practice "an echo of the long abandoned concept of debtors' prison."

In Massachusetts, defendants who are unable to pay fees and fines work off their debt at a rate of $30 a day. Baker's bill would triple the rate to $90 to reduce the amount of time someone would need to serve to satisfy a debt, his office said. The Senate committee had recommended bringing the rate to $60.

The bill would also ensure legal counsel is provided to indigent defendants before a prison sentence is imposed and allow judges to grant waivers in "certain extenuating circumstances" where a defendant could neither pay the fine nor perform community service, according to Baker's office.

Baker in February filed another criminal justice bill (H 74) based on recommendations from a Council on State Governments review, which would allow certain offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences the opportunity to reduce their jail time by participating in programming.

Last week Baker filed legislation (H 3539) that would make it a felony offense to assault a police officer and cause "serious bodily harm."

This article was originally published on April 11, 2017.

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