Criminal Justice System Traps Former Prisoners in Debt

I was struck dumb (not something that happens to me often) by the Shriver Center’s recent webinar on criminal debt.

I knew that parents often left prison with accumulated debt in child support that they could hardly pay while incarcerated. But I had no idea that our criminal justice system itself creates what are euphemistically called legal financial obligations.

Turns out that once people have paid their so-called debt to society, they often have a monetary debt, which can accumulate interest — and worse, result in re-incarceration for non-payment.

The debt itself consists in part of court costs and diverse fees. It may also include fines, restitution to victims and payment of bail when the terms weren’t met, e.g., showing up for a scheduled hearing.

And, in some jurisdictions, people convicted of crimes are actually charged for some portion of the costs of keeping them behind bars, even when they’re back there because their debt was too big to begin with.

Not only that, but arrangements to pay off the debt can involve fees, which needless to say, make the debt burden bigger. Other fees get tacked on for late payments and/or the collection agencies sicced on hapless debtors when they fall behind.

Fees and penalties vary from one jurisdiction to another. So I decided to get some specifics from a friend who’s a senior-level probation officer in a Midwest county. (Lack of specifics about who and where are, I trust, understandable.)

In the county’s system, defendants are charged $200 a day for time they spend before a judge — more if the case goes to a jury.

If they’re like at least 80% of people accused of state crimes, they have to rely on a public defender or another court-appointed attorney. The charge for availing themselves of their Constitutional right to defense counsel is at least $150 and maybe as much as $500.

Some understandably decide to cop a plea, even if a jury might not convict, my friend says.

At some point, they’re recommended for probation, which involves going before a judge. There goes another $200. As in many jurisdictions, they’re probably also responsible for paying a fine and/or restitution.

They leave jail with a long list of things they need to do to remain in the community — among them, meeting regularly with their probation officer. Charge for his/her supervision is $20 a month.

Paying off their other LOFs is there too, as is securing gainful employment. This top-listed item is, of course, an enormous challenge for anyone with a criminal record, but even more so for the large majority of former felons, who have, at most a high school diploma or the equivalent, relatively few marketable skills and scant (legal) employment history.

Many are “overwhelmed,” my friend says. They feel there’s no way they can fulfill all the conditions they’re supposed to meet. And so “they go back to what they know how to do,” e.g., peddle drugs, even if they’d left jail intending to lead a law-abiding life.

Well, that’s one, though a chancy way to get the LOFs paid off. They’re a reason, though not the only one, that more than one in four released offenders are back in prison within three years — both nationwide and in the state where my friend lives.

The county does, however, offer an alternative to coming up with cash for the LOFs. Probationers can perform community service, e.g., clean up roadsides, help out in a shelter. For this, they’re paid the minimum wage, which is booked as LOF payment.

But they have to pay $60 to sign up for community services — the equivalent of nearly a full day for the work they’ll perform. And if you look at the rest of the debt they may be carrying, you’ll see it would take them a dauntingly long time to pay it off this way.

And for some, the service option simply isn’t possible. Consider, for example, a single mother who’s got no nearby, willing family member to care for her kids and can’t afford child care.

Judges can waive LOFs in such cases, my friend said. But they generally don’t. They say family members will come up with the money. If not, the mother and others in her situation may find themselves back in jail — and with another charge for the court proceeding to add to the bill.

Even if they’re not reincarcerated, the very fact that they’ve failed to keep up with their payments can become a cause for extraordinarily harsh penalties because it can be treated as a violation of parole or probation.

That disqualifies them from major benefits for very low-income people, e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, SNAP (food stamps), Supplemental Security Income. It can also create yet other barriers to employment, e.g., by damaging their credit record.

One might wonder why any court system would do something that increases the likelihood of new offenses, let alone reincarceration without any. Why would so many make it so extraordinarily difficult for people who were often poor to begin with to climb out of poverty?

The basic answer is that what’s collected from the debtors shores up the budgets of the court systems, even if it’s often just a fraction of what they owe.

This whole revenue-raising business undermines both their justice functions and the appropriate functions of probation officers like my friend, as the Brennan Center argued in an oft-cited report.

It’s also obvious, I think, that the “poverty penalties,” as the Center calls them, undermine our interests in having as many ex-prisoners as possible rejoin our communities and legitimately gain the wherewithal to support themselves and their families.

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One Response to Criminal Justice System Traps Former Prisoners in Debt

  1. zoom314 says:

    It sounds like indentured servitude really, which by any other name is slavery, problem is I think the courts don’t recognize indentured servitude as being covered by the 13th amendment to the US Constitution. Of course provisions(roadblocks) were put into TANF, SNAP and SSI to keep felons off those programs by members of Congress, mainly I think to get rid of drug users(addicts) from those programs to reduce ‘waste’ and ‘fraud’, the whole bagger idea, whereas provisions could have been put into place to encourage ex-cons to go to community colleges(Junior Colleges here in CA), but short sighted and small minded people like to say pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and if you can’t, tough luck.

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