by Matt Clarke
Current and former Missouri state prisoners have been experiencing “sticker shock” as they are presented with bills for the cost of their incarceration.
The Missouri Incarceration Reimbursement Act (MIRA) has been around since 1988, but wasn’t seriously enforced until 2006. Under MIRA, prisoners can be billed for the full past and future costs of their incarceration if it is believed they have the ability to pay 10% of the cost of two years in prison (about $2,200 annually). The statute allows state officials to seize 90% of a prisoner’s assets or income stream to satisfy the debt. With the costs of incarceration so high, such debts can be significant. [See: PLN, April 2014, p.28].
A hypothetical prisoner serving a ten-year flat prison term would be liable for the entire cost of his incarceration – around $220,000 – should he have approximately $4,400 in assets. And state officials could move to collect the full amount even after he is released. Pensions and government benefits are not exempt, which can leave former prisoners with insufficient funds for housing or even food.
For example, when he was released after serving a four-month “shock” sentence for drunk driving, a former prisoner identified only as “Alex” thought his ordeal was over. Then he received a bill from the state for $6,370 in incarceration costs, according to an April 30, 2016 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He never received an opportunity to contest the bill and had no way of paying it after being incarcerated for four months with no income.
In 2014, Eugene Taylor was serving a 20-year sentence when he received a bill for $181,884 in incarceration costs plus any future costs. The triggering factor was his receipt of $33,989 from his 98-year-old grandfather, who sent him the funds so he could purchase a car and find a place to live once he got out.
Even though prison debt collections can be devastating to the finances of current and former prisoners, they have little effect on the finances of the state. Missouri seized $597,857 in incarceration costs in 2015 to put toward its $710 million annual corrections budget. In 2014, one in 310 prisoners was charged with incarceration costs; by 2015 the number had dropped to one in 452, with 29% of the amount collected coming from a single prisoner.
While over 40 states have enacted some kind of prison pay-to-stay statute, Missouri’s law is one of the most comprehensive. A similar Illinois program recovered only $512,219 in 11 debt collection cases since 2010, and the vast majority came from just two prisoners.
“In the old days, when someone got out of prison, they were given some money and a bus ticket. Now we give them a bill,” said U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan, a former Missouri judge who has ruled on many pay-to-stay cases. “If as a society we are going to get serious about rehabilitation, we need to take another look at how meaningful a second chance we are really giving people who come out of prison.”
Sources: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Daily Journal Online, www.doc.mo.gov
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