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How America's Prison System Punishes Women and Families

A new report counts the costs that women, children, and families bear when a loved one gets incarcerated.
(Photo: sakhorn/Shutterstock)

(Photo: sakhorn/Shutterstock)

It's extraordinarily expensive to go to jail. Last year, an NPR investigation found that people who are incarcerated in the United States are often billed for such essentials as their public defenders, the alcohol-monitoring devices they're required to wear, and even jury trials. Now, a new report finds that the debts reverberate far beyond incarcerated individuals: Court fees and jail time take their toll on families who are often responsible for the fees individuals can't pay.

The report, led by Forward Together and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an advocacy group, is publicly available. To come to the report's conclusions, the groups worked with other non-profits to interview 712 incarcerated Americans and their families in 14 states. Below are some highlights. Overall, the report paints a picture of a justice system that pulls millions of innocent folks into its grip, in addition to those it imprisons. From the report:

  • Court fees most often hit those who are least able to afford them. Eighty percent of people who are incarcerated are low-income, while two-thirds report incomes below the federal poverty line.
  • When someone is incarcerated, their family has to deal with several new expenses at once: They lose whatever income that person was earning, they must pay court fees, and they need to pay to call and visit their imprisoned loved one. (Prisoners who maintain close family ties are less likely to commit a crime again, other research has found, so it's actually counterproductive to discourage familial contact.)
  • Sixty-five percent of the families the report researchers interviewed said that, after their loved one was convicted and imprisoned, the family had trouble affording food, rent, and other basic needs. Twenty percent of families reported they took out loans to cover court costs.
  • Among the families the report's authors interviewed, the average amount owed in court fines and fees was more than $13,000.
  • Those who were primarily responsible for paying a person's court fees were most likely to be unincarcerated women—mothers, grandmothers, sisters, girlfriends, and wives of incarcerated folks.

Then, after imprisoned folks are released, they often have trouble contributing to their families the way they used to because their records make it difficult for them to land jobs. Other research has found that, on average, people who have been incarcerated earn 10 percent to 30 percent less over their lifetimes than their peers who haven't gone to jail. In addition, black and Hispanic men's wages suffer more for having a criminal past than white men's wages do.

The report also includes recommendations for reform:

  • Reduce the court fines and fees associated with imprisonment.
  • Make fewer crimes imprisonable offenses and reduce sentences for certain crimes. As an example, the report points to California's Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which re-classifies some non-violent felonies as misdemeanors so that those offenders don't have to deal with a "felony" on their record when they're trying to find housing or a job after their release.
  • Reduce the cost of phone calls and ensure people are imprisoned within 200 miles of their families, to lessen the cost of visiting.
  • Remove the requirement to disclose a prior criminal conviction on job applications. Eighteen states and more than 100 cities have passed such laws already, the report notes.

As one mother of two told the study's researchers, "With an incarcerated loved one I also feel like I've been doing time for the last 30 years.... I work day in and day out to support my husband and to keep my family from falling within the same cycles of abuse, poverty, and negativity that have loomed so heavily over our lives." Reforms like the ones the report suggests would reduce the burden of imprisonment on those, like this mom and her kids, who have committed no crime at all.