The Never-Ending Debt to the Criminal Justice System
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a Princeton study showing that whites with criminal records were as competitive in the job market as blacks without criminal records (for the same jobs). Not surprisingly, the report also found that anyone with a criminal record faced additional employment challenges, and that those challenges were greater for black than white ex-prisoners.
Ex-offenders' difficulty securing employment has especially harsh consequences given that many inmates are saddled with debt when they leave prison. It is often thought that when people are released from prison, they have repaid their debt to society. In fact, for many prisoners, that debt is only partially paid, for while they may have fulfilled their "liberty" obligations, upon exiting jail they find themselves owing significant amounts of money as a result of their contact with the criminal justice system.
The high societal cost of inmates' financial burdens, specifically how such burdens can derail ex-offenders' efforts at successful reentry into society, was summarized recently in a report titled "Repaying Debts" produced by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and commissioned by the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs' Bureau of Justice Assistance.
The report found, for instance, that in 11 states there was an average of $178 million per state in uncollected court costs, fines, fees, and restitution. In Ohio, 58% of people released from prison owed supervision fees, and one out of three owed child support payments. As a recent New York Times editorial observed, "in some jurisdictions, inmates are also billed for the DNA testing that proves their guilt or innocence, for drug testing and even for the drug treatment they are supposed to receive as a condition of parole. These fees are often used to run the courts, the sheriffs' offices or other parts of the corrections system."
But in many cases, milking former inmates for money is like trying to get blood from a stone. Across the country, 66% of people in jail reported annual incomes of less than $12,000 upon arrest. The vast majority of ex-inmates reported difficulty in paying off debts incurred from or during their involvement with the criminal justice system.
Yet despite ex-inmates inability to pay off their monetary debts, the criminal justice has become increasingly fee-driven, with victims, children of incarcerated parents, and criminal justice agencies all vying for a share of what little is available.
In some states, the lack of clear guidelines and coordination between agencies can literally deplete ex-inmates' funds entirely. For instance, while federal law allows for up to 65% of an individual's wages to be funneled to child support, state probation officers can require that 35% of a probationer's income go towards payment of fines, surcharges, and restitution. Without adequate communication or oversight, a released prisoner could thus be deprived of all of his or her earnings.
Not surprisingly, then, the report concluded that the inability of people exiting jail to meet their financial obligations increased their rates of recidivism. The third-most common cause of probation violations was probationers' failure to satisfy their payment requirements --- more common than violations for positive drug tests.
The Justice Center identified potential ways to begin remedying the issue: (1) creation of a single agency to track all of an individual's court-ordered debts, prioritize debts, and limit the percent of an individual's wages that must be put towards debts; (2) along similar lines, consolidate an individual's debts to improve collection rates and prioritize restitution and child support over court fines, fees, and surcharges; (3) enact child support enforcement policies that encourage parents released from prison to maintain legitimate employment to help provide long-term support for their children (presumably, such policies must include reasonable and realistic payment plans and also remove some of the onerous barriers to employment faced by ex-inmates); (4) develop a range of incentives, including waiver of fines, fees, and surcharges, to help people who are trying to meet their financial obligations; (5) develop job placement programs and training in personal finance management to increase ex-prisoners' earning capacity; (6) create alternatives to payment, such as community service, particularly for disabled inmates, to demonstrate accountability to victims, families, and communities.
We should consider reducing, if not in some instances eliminating, many of court- and case-related surcharges. In all instances, we should balance the need for repayments with our interest in helping ex-offenders establish themselves as productive and law-abiding members of the community. The criminal justice should also cease depending on prisoners to help fund its agencies (46% of the $18.3 million annual budget for the Travis County Probation Department in Texas in 2006 came from probation fees), and begin heeding the harsh consequences to ex-inmates' financial and familial futures caused by its labyrinth of fees and fines.
As I wrote about months ago, as a public defender in the Bronx, I was amazed to see the courts impose fine after fine, surcharge after surcharge, program cost after program cost, on my clients, despite the fact that they came from the poorest families in one of the poorest counties in the United States. It seemed counterproductive to put the poorest people under even greater financial pressure, and at even steeper pecuniary disadvantages, which only further severed their chances at economic mobility, deprived their families and children of much-needed support, added to their sense of inadequacy and at times humiliation, and increased their rates of recidivism. Those who could not pay fines, restitution, or for programs were sent back to jail. Those that could not pay surcharges would see their credit history shredded, thereby significantly dimming their future prospects of gaining approval for securing loans, buying or renting apartments or cars, etc.
Policies that only serve to keep poor people poor and come at a high cost to all involved, including the taxpayers who must support an overburdened criminal justice system that imprisons over 2.3 million people, must change. Hopefully the Justice Center's report will begin that change.