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Report Finds Criminal Justice System Financially Overburdens Prisoners and Their Families

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit focused on racial and economic policy, in conjunction with Forward Together and a dozen other community and civil rights organizations recently released a study which surveyed hardships experienced by former prisoners and their families. The study examined the experiences of over 1,080 current and former prisoners, along with their family members.

The study presented a number of striking conclusions. While almost two-thirds of families of prisoners had a hard time fulfilling basic needs, half indicated problems obtaining adequate food and shelter. This was in large part due to the primary breadwinner often being the one incarcerated, leaving their spouse and children behind to find ways to continue to get by.

The study also showed that the cost burden of incarceration and public defense systems is often placed on families of prisoners. According to the study, criminal defendants often have to pay for court fees, fines, phones calls, and commissary purchases. The court fees, which can include costs for public defenders and a jury trial fee, amounted to $13,607 for study participants; a number more than the $11,770 annual poverty line. Most criminal defendants have annual incomes below this threshold. Such costs often become the burden of those left on the outside when the sentence is being served.

In addition to the experiences of current prisoners, the study also explored the experiences of former prisoners and how their incarcerations affected their life prospects. According to the study, former prisoners surveyed indicated that they largely were only able to obtain temporary or part-time jobs at best. Twenty-six percent indicated that even up to five years following their release they still could not obtain employment.

According to the study authors, "[i]t is not enough to reform the criminal justice system without considering its purpose and impact on communities. Institutions with power must acknowledge the disproportionate impacts the current system has on women, low-income communities of color and address and redress the policies that got us here."

This research, according to Azadeh Zohrabi, Ella Baker Center national campaigner, shows that "[i]ncarceration weakens the social fabric and disrupts the social ecology of entire communities through the way it disrupts families' economic stability. . . Often it leaves it broken beyond repair."


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