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Baker-Polito administration files legislation replacing jail time with community service

The Baker-Polito Administration files “fine time” legislation on Tuesday to eliminate jail time and increase community service. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY KANKANIT WIRIYASAJJA/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito proposed a new “fine time” legislation, which would give individuals facing a fine the option to pay their debt through community service rather than going to jail, according to a Tuesday press release from Baker’s office.

The proposed legislation addresses the issue of “fine time,” the process by which individuals that cannot satisfy their debts can be sentenced to jail, earning $30 toward their debt per day until their fines are paid off, according to the release.

The legislation incorporates information included in a report compiled by the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee and former Committee Chair Sen. Michael Barrett (D-MA) in November of 2016, which exposed inadequate safeguards for individuals under the current system, according to the release.

Brendan Berger, the communications director for Barrett’s office, said the report was authorized after several instances of incarceration based on “fine time” were brought to the committee’s attention.

The research conducted compiled tapes and recordings from court hearings in 2015 for Essex, Plymouth and Worcester, according to the report.

“The audio recordings of these court proceedings can be jarring,” Barrett said in a November 2016 press release from Barrett’s office.

Berger said the committee received positive feedback from the community after the research was completed.

“I’d say people are definitely very upset about the findings,” Berger said. “We’ve definitely heard from people who want to help and want to see change.”

In addition to findings, the report included recommendations for future legislation on the “fine time” issue, according to Berger.

“If you’re poor and you can’t afford an attorney, there is still a $150 fee,” Berger said. “Senator Barrett’s [proposal] eliminates a number of fees, including the legal counsel fee, [and] also establishes certain protections for the defendant facing ‘fine time.’”

Berger said these recommendations were largely included in the newly proposed legislation, including increased monetary rates for incarceration.

“We’re proposing to triple the rate,” Berger said. “This would be $90 a day, therefore limiting the time spent in jail.

Berger said Baker’s legislation would aid those facing jail time for failing to pay their fines.

“A lot of the people who are involved in the criminal justice system are indignant,” Berger said. “This bill would absolutely provide release and shorter stays in prison and [or] prevent jail time.”

Richard Amster, an attorney with Milstein Zhang & Wu LLC, said he supports community service as an alternative to jail time for those unable to pay their fines.

“For one, it costs a lot of money to put people in jail,” Amster said. “Two, if it’s a civil fine, they shouldn’t be in the criminal system.”

However, Amster said the focus of the law should be on evening the playing field.

“People are very confused about what equality means,” Amster said. “It doesn’t mean everybody gets everything the same, it just means everybody has the same chance.”

Several Boston residents said they were pleased with the proposed legislation and think community service is a more fair option than “fine time.”

Alberty Reyes, 33, of Allston, said she thinks the current system is unfair for those facing debt and that there should be a way to work around jail time.

“I like community service because you can work it out another way,” Reyes said. “It’s better than going to jail. You become productive.”

Niki Hinkle, 31, of Allston, said she thinks the legislation is a good idea because allotting money to pay fines can be difficult, especially in Boston.

“I think it’s a tricky thing to come up with money especially within a certain amount of time … it’s not a cheap city to live in,” Hinkle said. “If people can give their time instead of money and they’re willing to do so versus face the consequences, I say why not?”

Ryan Hinkle, 31, of Allston, said he is appalled by the current system, and hopes to see it reformed.

“I think that’s awful, like debtor’s jail, that should definitely be illegal,” Hinkle said. “It’s like sending you to jail for having student loans.”

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