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Lawmakers will forgive the nation’s debt and student debt, but what about debt among the incarcerated?

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Earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the United States could run out of money to pay its bills as soon as June 1. Despite recent debates over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling, the truth is that both Democrats and many Republicans have largely voted to raise the debt ceiling with little to no fanfare throughout American history. Yet while lawmakers remain lenient when it comes to forgiving the government’s own debt, they offer little such empathy to folks who have incurred debt as a result of their entanglement in the carceral system.  

The average incarcerated person emerges from the system having accumulated $13,607 in debt. For context, about 60 percent of people in this country cannot afford a $1,000 emergency, let alone afford to return home after years away with a gap in their resume, little chance of finding housing, and over 10 times that amount in debt. This debt — a product primarily of legal system fines and fees — can keep people legally bound to the judicial system for the remainder of their lives

This cycle is not an accident: our legal system is not designed to foster safety but to impose punishment. Instead of ensuring folks are financially stable enough to feed their families and find legitimate work after serving their time, our system chooses instead to inflict forms of financial punishment that prolong stigma and loss of liberty.

But it does not have to be this way. In a country so willing to forgive its own federal debt, it is high time that lawmakers move past hypocrisy and toward true public safety by implementing reforms aimed at reducing carceral debt and promoting public safety.

This carceral debt arises in many forms. Even before a person is convicted, they might have to pay for bail (which can range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars), pretrial services like ankle monitoring (ranging up to $5,000 per year out of pocket) or diversion program fees (which can also cost thousands of dollars). 

If convicted, that same individual will face additional costs while incarcerated, ranging from phone call fees to stay in touch with loved ones to commissary costs for food and hygiene products, all of which are priced significantly higher than they would be in the outside world. Some incarcerated people are also required to pay for their own health care behind bars. And once released, the madness does not stop — costs can continue to accrue, with probation or parole supervision fees constituting the most common form of debt formerly incarcerated people held in one study

Not to mention the fact that non-legal “outside” debt continues to accumulate while a person is going through the criminal legal process: When a person is arrested, they often leave other bills and financial obligations behind, such as unpaid credit cards, child support, rent or utility bills. This often comes back to haunt them once they have exited a prison or jail. 

The worst part? None of these costs imposed on the person entangled in the system actually make the surrounding community safer. In fact, they have the opposite effect. 

Studies have shown time and time again that saddling formerly incarcerated people with debt reduces their economic mobility and only increases the odds they will be pushed toward committing future offenses. Even without debt, incarceration renders a person less likely to have the kind of successful financial future that fosters stability: it cuts a person’s lifetime earnings in half, makes it much harder to get a job (in spite of evidence that formerly incarcerated folks are great employees), and cuts people off from the social safety net. It makes other aspects of life more expensive by excluding folks from affordable housing and hurting both physical and mental health, driving up the amount of a person’s budget that must go to seeking care.

This general struggle for economic stability is only exacerbated by debt from incarceration. And all of this falls particularly on the shoulders of Black and Brown people, who are the primary targets of our criminal legal apparatus, and those with low incomes.

In other words, our policy choice to throw people into carceral debt and then deny them the means to survive is making us all less safe. Why, then, is the government largely understanding of the challenges relating to its own debts but unforgiving when it comes to addressing the debt that, if erased, has the potential to truly make America safer?

If the system — and the elected officials who built it — were truly concerned about public safety, they would be investing in the pro-safety measures we know work. We must stop empowering our elected officials to entrench poverty and instead call on them to invest funds in things that create real safety. These include housing access, basic income, healthcare, education and safe exit routes out of the criminal legal system, such as expanded public defense.

Emily Galvin-Almanza is executive director of Partners for Justice, a national nonprofit bolstering public defense, and a former Bronx public defender.

Tags Criminal justice Debt debt ceiling Janet Yellen Prison reform

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