The Atlantic magazine published an article on July 5, 2016 highlighting the growing problems in Louisiana with legal financial obligations (LFOs) and their effect on poor defendants and the recently incarcerated. Former prisoners usually have a hard time finding a stable income post incarceration and LFOs often require former prisoners to pay thousands of dollars upon release. The average amount in the state of Washington is $1,347, with interest rates that make the debt increase over time. One woman the article mentions owed $33,000 upon her release from prison, and after making minimum payments for 13 years owed $72,000. This is an extreme example, but for the poor — who are the most commonly imprisoned on the socioeconomic scale — any amount can quickly become overwhelming and cause them to face more jail time.
The relationship between the poor and prison is one that has always existed, but one that has become more of a problem in the United States in the recent decades. A 2015 report by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) found that our current welfare and criminal justice system actually hurts the poor more than other demographics and in many cases lands them in prison. Their conclusion is that the poor and minority populations in the United States are profiled and arrested at unjust levels. This is not a groundbreaking conclusion, but their findings show some of the extent of the current problem. The problems exist all over the system and pervade different aspects of society from school discipline to Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws.
The report also highlights that the debts incurred upon release from prison that keep the poorest prisoners poor. In 1991, 25% of inmates owed some sort of court imposed fee or fine. By 2004 the number of inmates that owed money towards these fees and fines increased to 66 percent. Today, the report estimated that 80 to 85 percent of prisoners leave prison with this debt. These fines and being imprisoned can make you poor even if you are in the minority of prisoners that were not poor before prison. Between the costs of arrest and trial and the struggle to find a job post-imprisonment, many former prisoners become impoverished because of their arrest or time in prison.
The report observes that those who are arrested and not convicted may still face the time consuming and costly task of clearing their criminal record before they can find employment. Other policies the report cites include the discriminatory use of Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws, and the criminalization of Homelessness. Both have obvious implications for the poor, and many of the victims of discrimination in these cases have suffered from the other problems as well.
Strapping on government debt to former prisoners, who will struggle to find employment upon release, keeps poor people poor and opens up former criminals to the types of influences that could lead to new criminal activity. How is this better? If government is failing the poor, the answer cannot be to financially burden the poor as a remedy. Perhaps it’s time to dismantle and reconstruct our criminal justice to free ex-offenders from the poverty trap set by the intentions government policy makers.