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Noting the punishing reality of persistent prison debt


With a certain type of debt (and forgiveness) now a hot topic, this new AP article provides a window into another type of debt that persistently punishes.  The piece is headlined, “At $249 per day, prison stays leave ex-inmates deep in debt,” and here are excerpts:

Two decades after her release from prison, Teresa Beatty feels she is still being punished.  When her mother died two years ago, the state of Connecticut put a lien on the Stamford home she and her siblings inherited.  It said she owed $83,762 to cover the cost of her 2 1/2 year imprisonment for drug crimes.

Now, she’s afraid she’ll have to sell her home of 51 years, where she lives with two adult children, a grandchild and her disabled brother.  “I’m about to be homeless,” said Beatty, 58, who in March became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the state law that charges prisoners $249 a day for the cost of their incarceration.  “I just don’t think it’s right, because I feel I already paid my debt to society.  I just don’t think it’s fair for me to be paying twice.”

All but two states have so-called “pay-to-stay” laws that make prisoners pay for their time behind bars, though not every state actually pursues people for the money.  Supporters say the collections are a legitimate way for states to recoup millions of taxpayer dollars spent on prisons and jails.  Critics say it’s an unfair second penalty that hinders rehabilitation by putting former inmates in debt for life.

Efforts have been underway in some places to scale back or eliminate such policies.  Two states — Illinois and New Hampshire — have repealed their laws since 2019.  Connecticut also overhauled its statute this year, keeping it in place only for the most serious crimes, such as murder, and exempting prisoners from having to pay the first $50,000 of their incarceration costs….

Beatty acknowledges she was guilty of selling and possessing drugs, but said nobody told her when she went to jail that every day behind bars would cost her more than a night at a fine hotel.  “It just drags you back to despair,” said Beatty, who has had other brushes with the law over drug possession since her release from jail, but has also become a certified nursing assistant. “That’s where I feel like I’m at. I feel like no hope. Where do I go? All of this work and it feels like I’ve done it in vain.”

Pay-to-stay laws were put into place in many areas during the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and ’90s, said Brittany Friedman, an assistant professor of sociology at University of Southern California who is leading a study of the practice. As prison populations ballooned, Friedman said, policymakers questioned how to pay for incarceration costs. “So, instead of raising taxes, the solution was to shift the cost burden from the state and the taxpayers onto the incarcerated.”

Laws vary from state to state.  Many, like Connecticut, only go after inmates for the cost of incarceration if they come into money after leaving prison.  A few, such as North Carolina, have laws on the books but almost never use them, Friedman said.



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