What Happens to a Person’s Money After They Leave Prison?
When people ask what I’ve been researching over the past couple of years, I have gotten used to saying this: what happens to a person’s money after they leave prison.
I keep thinking that I should change that word “money” to something more seemly; to speak of opportunities and economics, or use some other purposefully genteel term.
But it would shade what is crippling formerly incarcerated people as they leave prison: lack of money and debt. In many ways, it’s death by a thousand cuts: often there is not one large bill to pay, but rather an accumulation of fees, fines, costs, child support, restitution—all of that combined with returning to society with ruined credit and few employment options.
Last year, at a criminal justice conference, I announced my research goals and was immediately approached by Amy Hirsch, a lawyer from Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. She said: you have to come to Philadelphia.
So last fall, I started to work on a story about a debt collection that was taking place there. In 2010, the city realized that the agency tasked with collecting criminal justice debt had neither accounted for nor collected what was owed. Court officials believed they were owed an estimated $1.5 billion in unpaid bail, fees, and fines, from some 300,000 people dating back to the early 1970s. The debt collection is affecting one in five people, in a city of 1.5 million.
The courts had previously struggled with enforcing their arrests—the number of people failing to appear for their court dates was creating public safety issues, and jumping bail was endemic.
Unlike many other jurisdictions struggling to collect on debts to the courts, Philadelphia added the cost of “bail forfeitures” to the bill. So an individual would be asked to repay the entire amount of his or her bail, ballooning the debts sometimes to $10,000, $20,000, or $80,000 or more.
The court administrators responsible for the collection were clearly flummoxed. Debt collection was not their specialty and what followed the announcement of “Stand Up, Pay Up” was a mess. Some collections were given to private companies, and sometimes people could come to court to essentially negotiate their debt. To be fair, the courts did not have expectations of collecting all that was owed, and they were willing to set up what they deemed reasonable payment plans with people who showed up.
During one of the days I spent reporting, I watched a woman approach the bench during a “payment plan conference.” She and the court administrator engaged in a back and forth focusing on why she had missed a court date in August 1986.
Where was she that day? Why wasn’t she in court?
She was uncertain of what the protocol was in court, and stood up awkwardly to address the administrator. She didn’t answer his questions, but instead explained that she was trying to turn her life around and that the infraction was behind her. The administrator, who seemed equally awkward in his role, reduced the debt she owed, but then coerced her into giving him her mother’s address, so he could pursue a bail forfeiture that had been signed by her mother on her behalf.
It was a depressing scene for all involved.
What is happening in Philadelphia is extreme, both because of the scale of the collection and the attempt at retroactive recoupment. But every day I see the fees and fines people are hit with across the country. And while it might make intuitive sense to have people who commit a crime to pay for it, the reality is that the fees, fines, and costs are not monitored or capped, the debts are not regulated, and they are contributing to a cycle of poverty for the formerly incarcerated and their families.
We have created a criminal justice system we can no longer afford, and asking the formerly incarcerated to subsidize it is a disaster for American families.
Amanda Aronczyk’s “The Cost of Doing Time” won this year’s Media for a Just Society Award in the radio category. Ms. Aronczyk has been a public radio reporter and new media producer for over 15 years, and has worked at Radiolab, Marketplace, Weekend America, and The Next Big Thing. Her reporting has been heard on the BBC World Service, WNYC, Studio 360, and more. She's also an adjunct faculty member at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and a Soros Justice Media Fellow, and is currently working on The Cost of Crime, a multimedia investigation into the financial repercussions of imprisonment.
Very interesting topic. I wonder if your research included the federal and state.
Excellent topic. Perhaps the money should go first to the victim or victim's family.
Considering that MOST of the people who are incarcerated are accused of crimes that do not HAVE victims, that would not affect too many prisoners.
the article was very interesting. i would like to know further on this conversation. why happens if a person confined in the prison system suddenly has money awarded to him. does the justice system take any of his money while being confined. thanks.
If you are on social security, medicaid, disability, or other forms of income, it is forfeited to the state when you are imprisoned. None of it is given back to you if you are released.
That isn't true. Social Security ends with a felony until you're released. IF you're on a misdemeanor, you can still collect it. VA benefits can be paid with a misdemeanor, and it's against the law to attach them, but with a felony, that payment is reduced to 10% which it is against the law to attach VA disability compensation. Medicaid ends with incarceration, but can be reinstated upon release.
Does any of that money go towards the fines and fees you are assessed?
You would be amazed at how many people are caught in a constantly climbing cycle of debt due to this kind of thing. The way things are set up it is almost impossible for the average person to afford or pay off and it just keeps getting bigger, effectively trapping them for YEARS in the system. It's insane. I've seen people go to court, tell them they have no job and no money and cannot pay. Instead of reducing the payments I've routinely seen not only that the payments are continued but added to. If someone can't afford to pay $50, how in the world is it logical to then tell them they have to pay $75? It makes no sense. People are regularly told it's not the court's problem that they can't pay. In today's economy how can they logically keep this up? The system is broken so badly - fines
There is no logic is the system. After you are convicted of a crime, you can not get a decent job, you can not live in a good neighborhood, you can not get even a car loan or high interest credit card. You are pushed into a dark hole and left there without any resources. No wonder the return rate is so high, you can't get a job, so you have to do something to pay your bills. The probation/parole officers are for the most part decent people, but they have nothing and I mean nothing to do with rehabilitation or reform. Their sole purpose is to treat you like you are worth nothing more than your monthly payment. Don't pay get threatened with jail, don't find a job, get put back in jail, you are only a way to make more money for the system, and if you don't pay, you are hauled back into court
Excellent article. I've struggled to get my credit back in good order. I'm working at a decent job, but the debt I racked up while in a substance abuse life style continue to haunt me. Then, as soon as i got a phone in my name, collection agencies started. I owed back taxes, back child support, utility bills. You name it. I accept my responsibility to the debt I created, but it can't all be paid back at once. It got to the point where I wouldn't answer my phone if I didn't recognize the number. My "debt to society" seems never-ending.
I have personal experience with something like this a couple of years ago i was charged with fraudulent use of a credit card in absentia having moved out of state prior. Five years later I am extradited to the state where the offence occurred pled guilty and ordered to pay restitution of $4000. I'm released , and return to where i was subsequently I am arrested on drug charges do 6 yr.s get out and now the $4000 bill is $17,000 with interest. My question is the business where I used the card is closed , the owner has passed on who gets this money?
My God. How true, the article about upping the fines on people who don't pay. I had a bank do that to me once. They never held my money again. It definitely is insanity. The economic system has to be improved.