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A counter-productive fee

Little-noticed in the slew of bills approved by the General Assembly in the waning hours of its 90-day session last week was a measure requiring new parolees to be told about how they can apply for an exemption from the state's monthly supervision fee. That will no doubt prove helpful — but the fact that the state charges a supervision fee at all is maddeningly shortsighted.

Here's the problem. Back in 1991 — when the state was, like now, hard-pressed for funds due to a downturn in the economy — lawmakers approved a monthly fee for parole and probation. Most states followed the trend under the perfectly reasonable view that those convicted of crimes should share in the financial burden they cause taxpayers.

Today, that fee is $40 per month and goes to the state's general fund. It is paid on top of any fines or restitution that the released prisoner may also be obligated to pay.

That isn't a huge sum, and no doubt there are parolees who can easily afford it. But most probably can't, and charging it to what is essentially an indigent population has unintended consequences.

The real bottom line for taxpayers and parolees is recidivism. The last thing lawmakers should want is for a released prisoner to return to a life of crime and go back to prison, all of which is a lot more expensive than $40 per month.

A study released in 2009 by the Brennan Center For Justice at New York University School of Law documented how damaging this financial burden can be. Prisoners already face enormous hurdles in finding a job and a place to live. Many face child support fees, drug and alcohol testing and treatment-related fees, and other costs associated with parole.

As a result, what usually happens is that the $40 fee goes unpaid. The charges mount, and the matter goes to the state's collection agency. Soon, the modest fee has turned into something a lot more substantial — $743, on average.

This is not to shed tears for convicts but to look out for the best interests of society. As the Brennan study points out, a majority of released inmates are reconvicted and returned to custody within three years. Why make the odds worse?

Those on parole can apply for an exemption from the fee. Unemployment, disability and child support costs are grounds for such a waiver. But that requires people to know their rights and have the means to document their situation — something the recently approved legislation seeks to address.

In truth, this remedy only adds a layer of complexity onto what is a questionable policy to begin with. The real focus ought to be on keeping ex-offenders on the straight and narrow. Increasing access to drug treatment, mental health care and education while reducing the caseloads of Division of Parole and Probation agents, are sensible strategies for accomplishing that goal.

Preserving the supervision fee is a classic case of doing something that is pennywise but dollar foolish — all so lawmakers can claim they didn't cast a vote to benefit convicts or somehow soften the judicial system for those who break the law.

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