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The Hidden Costs of Incarceration in the Adult System

Posted in 2015, Research & Policy Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Hidden Costs of Incarceration in the Adult System

By Nils Franco, CFYJ Intern

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights this month published “Who Pays,” a report investigating the adult criminal justice system’s long-term effects on inmates, families, and society. The Center surveyed more than 700 former inmates and 300 family members in 14 states. This effort produces reliable data on the economic, social, and health-related burdens communities bear from incarceration, which bring “increased poverty, destabilized neighborhoods, and generations of trauma,” according to the report.

The findings demonstrate that adult sentences cost more than just the lost years of one individual’s incarceration. The costs of even a minor offense can add up in thousands of dollars of debt, mental health issues, and the specter of a permanent record. While the report surveys the general population of the adult prison system, many of its findings apply especially severely to juveniles.

The burden of judicial punishment, the report finds, is not carried by the offenders alone: their families lose a source of income, their families must find a way to pay off legal fees, and their families must pay to stay in contact with their incarcerated loved one. No family or individual is an island, however, and the economic setbacks can spread to the entire community.

Most tangible among the collateral consequences are the economic costs, which pile up measurably at every stage of the system. Over half of respondents said they could not afford conviction-related fees, which average $13,607 per inmate. While imprisoned, inmates’ basic needs must be paid for by family, at absurd costs. Under these financial pressures, one in five families faces eviction during a loved one’s incarceration because of housing unaffordability, and almost two in three struggle to afford other necessities. Economic strains continue after incarceration because of the stigma attached to a criminal record. 76 percent of former inmates found it “very difficult or nearly impossible” to get a job after prison, and less than half worked fulltime five years after release. Unpaid debts incurred during adult incarceration compound the effects of employment constraints, and 12 percent of former inmates are put back into prison for missing conviction-related debt payments.

Meanwhile, government aid that could lift men and women back onto their feet during re-entry is denied even to minor offenders. Past drug offenders are ineligible in most states for federal welfare programs, and local housing authorities can deny public housing to individuals with a record. One in 10 family members polled lost their public housing after a loved one with a record returned home. Unpaid criminal justice debts can also result in the denial of student loans, disability benefits, and Social Security.

Lasting incarceration-related health effects in adults detailed in the report are even more severe for youth, who are less emotionally developed and more likely to be victimized by adult prisoners. 66 percent of the general population of former inmates said their or their family’s health suffered from incarceration’s effects. Many reported pre-existing chronic health problems worsening, while high healthcare costs block inmates from getting needed treatment. Mental health in particular suffers from experiences related to incarceration, and PTSD and depression are linked to and exacerbated by those experiences.

With robust new data, the Center’s report powerfully underscores the ripple effects of incarceration. By locking up a young offender for even a few years, we destroy not just his or her economic and social opportunity, but in fact harm entire families and communities. Developmentally, childhood is a ripe moment for growth through opportunities, health, and second chances. The adult criminal justice system impairs all of these, and at high societal costs. Stripping juveniles of their lifetime earning potential and saddling their families with debt are undesirable outcomes of a criminal justice system. The Ella Baker Center report provides crucial insight into the collateral consequences of prison life, and understanding these post-incarceration stressors helps to explain why juveniles tried as adults have higher recidivism rates than juveniles tried in the appropriate system.

An executive summary of the report can be found here.

Written by Nils Franco, a policy and law intern with the Campaign for Youth Justice. Nils studies economics and public policy at American University.