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Report Finds Criminal Justice Debt Creates Barriers to Offender Reintegration

Severe financial obligations imposed upon offenders who get entangled with the criminal justice system "perpetually punish many ex-offenders and consign them to a life of permanent debt and poverty," concludes a report published by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The report "explores the causes and effects of perpetual criminal debt and offers solutions for encouraging ex-offender payment."  It delves into each area of financial obligation that impacts ex-offenders and the systematic burdens that result.

Punishment and revenue generation are the primary justifications most often cited to support saddling offenders with financial obligations at nearly every level of the criminal justice system. Yet, because most offenders are indigent, they end up with the "ultimate debt penalty" as a result of their inability to pay.

Criminal justice fees are created and increased by legislators "to offset the high costs of the legal system and incarceration."

In most states, "user fees" are assessed for "pre-trial detention, security in the courtroom, medical expenses during incarceration, community supervision, drug screens, treatment classes, transfer of community supervision to another state, sex offender registration and electronic monitoring.  Fifteen states impose "poverty penalties" in the form of late fees, interest and payment plan fees for those who cannot pay the criminal debt all at once.

Offenders in the US owe more than $50 Billion in criminal justice debt, and in 2007 total restitution debt was nearly $40 Billion. While restitution has a direct impact for victims and it's payment correlates with lower recidivism, most offenders have an inability to pay this debt.

Child support has the highest debt collection priority in all state and federal jurisdictions. About 70% of all males between 33 and 40 are fathers upon incarceration and noncustodial parents enter prison owing more than $10,000 in child support debt. This debt is not suspended nor are the required payments resulting in an appropriate accumulation of $20,000 more in debt upon completion of their sentences.

The sanctions imposed upon those unable to pay have no benefit for the children.  In fact, the sanctions have adverse consequences. The garnishing of wages, withholding of tax returns and social security benefits, suspension of driver licenses, denial of passports and encumbrance of bank accounts "may strain the parent-child relationship" by forcing many indigent parents to flee.

Court-ordered financial obligations that many offenders cannot afford to pay "become detrimental to their reintegration" by competing with "other essential life expenses, such as food, rent and child support".  The "high prevalence of non-payment" ironically results in debt collection efforts by the system that is usually more costly than the money they generate.  Debt collection fees placed upon offenders only put them further in debt.

"An important consequence of financial burdens is that they increase the likelihood of recidivism, particularly when they are unable to pay," states the report. "Based upon their annual average, ex-offenders owe as much as 60% of their income in criminal debts."

Re-incarceration is the worst case scenario.  "In Rhode Island, failure to pay court debt was the most common reason that individuals were incarcerated between 2005 and 2007," the report continued, "the average amount owed was $826 and the average cost of three days of incarceration was over $505. The stigma of a criminal conviction and lack of training in prison and time out of prison hampers the ability of ex-offenders to find a quality job with wage growth possibilities. Financial assistance is also denied to many sex offenders and those convicted of drug offenses. Yet, it is these same people who are saddled with criminal justice debt which "will never be profitable for the state, rather it will only serve to expand and prolong criminal punishment for ex-offenders already facing multiple barriers to re-integration," concludes the report’s findings.

The report then proposes solutions to "increase the likelihood of payment while lessening the financial burden on offenders," they include bankruptcy reform, ascertain the offenders financial status when setting fee amounts, prioritize fees, track debt, reform restitution collection, improve child support collection, provide public assistance and find alternatives to incarceration.

See full text: The Debt Penalty- Exposing the Financial Barrier to Offender Re-integration

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