Day 24

Say one who has recently been released from prison or jail is lucky enough to find a decent job — one that actually pays a living wage and is within reasonable transportation routes of one’s residence, if they have even found a place that will let them live there.  They will soon find that they system is not structured in a way that makes it any easier for them to survive. 

Upon release, the formerly incarcerated are often shackled with enormous debts, practically forbidding them from building a new life and supporting themselves financially.  Newly released prisoners are expected to pay a host of agencies, including probation departments, courts, and child-support enforcement offices.  Some places they may even be required to pay for their drug testing and drug treatment that they must receive as a condition of parole.  Most of these financial penalties have been created in the last 20 years or so.  Jail book-in fees, jail per diems for pretrial detention, public defender application fees, and bail investigation fees.  Pre-sentence report fees, public defender recoupment fees, and work release or residential program fees.  Then you add parole or probation service fees on top of all that.  And the failure to pay these fees may bring further punishment, community control sanctions, or sentence modifications.  These “poverty penalties” persist in piling on late fees, payment plan fees, and interest when individuals cannot pay these debts all at once.  Many of these extra fees/penalties enrich private debt collection agencies in the process.  Some states even allow for debt collectors to charge as much as 30-40% surcharges to the underlying debt. 

At the same time, two-thirds of people detained in jails report incomes under $12,000 prior to arrest.  They can’t afford to live on their own before these legal troubles and debt accumulation, so of course they can’t pay now.  So their hard-earned paychecks get garnished.  Up to 65% can be garnished for child support.  And then another 35% can be collected by probation officers in most states toward the payment of the fines, fees, surcharges, interest, and other restitution.  Do the math.  That’s 100%.  A newly released prisoner can be required to surrender 100% of his or her earnings.  “People caught in this impossible predicament are less likely to seek regular employment,” wryly commented a New York Times editorial, “making them even more susceptible to criminal relapse.” *see Out of Prison and Deep in Debt  *see also Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, pp. 154-7, for even more details about this modern day “debtor’s prison”.

Debtor’s prison continues to exist — even though it is “illegal” in all states.  The threat of probation or parole revocation is a tool used in debt collection.  Some states allow individuals to “choose” to go to jail as a way to reduce their debt burdens.  Other states suspend driving privileges for defaults on these debts, simply perpetuating the cycle of legal discrimination and overwhelming barriers to self-sustaining, new lives post-incarceration.

How awful it will be for those who mandate wickedness
    and legalize oppression, denying justice to the needy,
Taking away the rights of the poor among My people.
  Isaiah 10: 1-2





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