Many times individuals get struck with unknown costs and soon become underwater in debt. Debt is a harmful and a sad unfortunate reality for millions of everyday individuals. “From credit card debt to mortgage debt to student loan debt, Americans increasingly live off of borrowed money. But few realize how the criminal justice system imposes increasing debts on individuals. Worse still, criminal justice debt perpetuates mass incarceration” (Eisen and Eaglin 2014). In addition to the 1.6 million people incarcerated in federal and state prisons, there are 646,000 people locked up in more than 3,000 local jails throughout the United States. “One reason that the innocent population that are locked up in the U.S. is so large is because our country largely has a system of money bail, in which the constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty only really applies to the well-off individuals who are awaiting trial” (Rabuy and Kopf 2016). In many states individuals who are arrested, processed, and placed in jail/prison end up being followed through the criminal justice system and in almost every state are charged fees and fines at every turn throughout their case lengths. There are fines intended to impose multiple punishments on individuals, like speeding fines followed by an arrest. But also fines that go to victim funds. Raubuy and Kopf say, “The American prison system is bursting at the seams with people who have been shut out of the economy and who had neither a quality education nor access to good jobs. In 2014, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration, which is 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages” (Rabuy and Kopf 2015).
While there are visible costs from the outside, there also a lot of less visible costs.
Eisen and Eaglin explain “For example, correctional facilities across the nation charge fees to their inmates for countless reasons. Many institutions charge $25 a day to stay at the certain facility, in addition to a $20 booking fee for actually being arrested, a $5 release fee, and a $7 medical co-payment fee. Most jails also charge for toilet paper and clothing. Then there are fees for using the criminal justice system itself. Forty-three states allow fees for a public defender, and 44 states charge individuals for using probation services. Though many of these fees may seem relatively small – public defender fees range from about $50 to $200 – they add up quickly and a defendant can emerge from the system with thousands of dollars in debt” (Eisen and Eaglin 2014).
These charges are an overwhelming reason and response to mass incarceration and the long standing dog whistle politics. “For example, in Ferguson, Missouri, the city relied on rising municipal court fines to make up 20 percent of its $12 million operating budget in fiscal year 2013” (Eisen and Eaglin 2014). While these fees are supposed to help the system, they are imposing sentences and adding fines that will last way beyond their time in the system. This heartbreaking reality of fines and fees contradicts the ultimate goal of release of reintegration of the individual as a productive member of society. “Some individuals face the withholding of income from paychecks. Others face liens on their homes creating a cycle of struggle and potentially homelessness” (Eisen and Eaglin 2014). Eisen and Eaglin argue “many individuals are unable to get employment because of many obstacles but further hindering their access to employment is unfair.” Many people who end up with these finds never find themselves getting out of the cycle of incarceration. Many prisons require individuals to purchase all of the items aside from the basic food items. These additional items include hygiene items, snacks, postage supplies to write and send letters, vitamins and other personal items that an individual may need but these items are placed at an expensive cost for individuals who are making less than one dollar an hour (Curley 2016). Furthermore, any money that is sent will have additional fees tacked onto it by private companies that many do not even know about. Eisin and Eaglin argue that “or many individuals family contact is lost because of the financial hardships that follow with phone calls.
“For example, JPay tack fees onto any money sent by families, usually around 35 percent and sometimes as high as 50 percent. Then, in order to communicate with their families via phone, they must pay huge fees that are also decided by private companies. These fees were reaching as high as $6.95 for 15 minutes in some states until the Federal Communications Commission capped it at $1.65 last year” (Eisen and Eaglin 2014). . Not only do inmates face financial hardships while they are in prison, they face tremendous amounts of barriers once they are released from prison. Housing, employment and food all become potential serious issues once released.
“When an inmate is released, it can be extremely difficult to find employment, as many employers will disqualify anyone with a criminal history. With no income and with a negative background check, former inmates are often unable to find housing and pay for food and health needs. A 2015 study by the Ella Baker Center revealed that the average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees is $13,607” (Curley 2016). For an inmate who is struggling and unable to find work, this can leave them, their family, and their community financially crippled for the rest of their life and always being influenced by the criminal justice system. Factors such as removing primary earners, limiting access to public benefits and disrupting social and economic facts of a neighborhood significantly impact the entire society. These factors support reducing poverty by developing the root cause of mass incarceration. “Also, while it appears policies that drive mass incarceration are changing and may lead to lower levels of incarceration, the path toward reasonable policies remains uncertain” (Mass Legal Services 2013). Reports at Mass Legal Services talk about the consequences of our long standing history with mass incarceration. “Whatever the future holds, there are currently millions of people in prison or who have returned to their communities. They are now living with severe consequences as they attempt to support themselves and their families. Fair hiring practices, protection from discrimination, and access to public benefits are just a few of the many potential policy solutions that would address the needs of formerly incarcerated people and support efforts to significantly reduce poverty” (Mass Legal Services 2013). Many Activists like Paul Street (2001) and other policymakers should call and make plans for a criminal- to social-justice”: the large-scale transfer of funds spent on mass arresting and incarceration, surveillance throughout our entire life, and enormous reentry into such policy areas such as, drug treatment, job-training, transitional services, and welfare systems for ex-offenders, and public education regarding the employment and the potential barriers that ex-offenders will go through in their life after incarceration (Street 2001). Street 2001 says, “They should call and make plans for the diversion of criminal justice resources from “crime in the streets” (i.e., the harassment and imprisonment of lower- class and inner-city people) to serious engagement with under-sentenced “crime in the suites.” More broadly, they should seek a general redistribution of resources from privileged and often fantastically wealthy persons to those most penalized from birth by America’s long and intertwined history of inherited class and race privilege” (Street 2001). In 2009, for the first time since 1972, the total number of people who are incarcerated on a daily basis in America declined. That’s a very good thing. Abramsky 2010 suggest that this number has declined because “It suggests that legislators, along with the broader voting public, are finally waking up to the huge, and unsustainable, financial costs that states are absorbing by keeping large numbers of low-end offenders locked up. But the reasons for scaling back the prison system ought not to be framed solely as a cost-cutting measure that’s necessary but nasty” (Abramsky 2010). Locking up individuals who are of a lower socioeconomic status in historically unprecedented numbers has undermined one of America’s most essential, and valuable, traits—social mobility (Davis 2003).