The road home from prison is filled with obstacles and roadblocks. Finding employment, reuniting with family, locating housing, and meeting conditions of supervision, all while staying drug and alcohol free can be daunting for individuals who return home from incarceration.
For most individuals returning from prison, the debt accumulated as a result of their criminal justice involvement can be staggering. Legal financial obligations including fines, fees, restitution, and child support compounded by penalties and arrears amassed over a period of incarceration saddle individuals returning home with overwhelming debt that impedes their ability to contribute to their family and their community. As reported in the Brennan Center’s seminal work on the topic, criminal justice debt significantly hobbles a person’s chances to reenter society successfully after a conviction (Bannon, 2012).
Most individuals returning from prison were low wage earners prior to incarceration (Bannon 2012, Harris, 2010, Roman, 2015). Unemployment rates prior to incarceration have been reported to be 40% for sentenced individuals (Western, 2015) and only 55% of incarcerated individuals reported having full-time employment at the time of their arrest (Travis, 2005). Post incarceration, sustainable employment can be difficult to find and maintain. More than half of individuals returning home experience financial insecurity, unemployment, and reliance on public assistance in the critical months post release (Visher, 2004; Western, 2015).
Losing one’s driver’s license complicates employment prospects post incarceration. The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Affordability and Fairness Task Force reported in 2006 that more than 20,000 people lose their driver’s license due to a drug conviction on an annual basis. Moreover, most driver’s license suspensions have nothing to do with poor driving. The suspension of drivers' licenses is commonplace in municipal court practices across New Jersey and was mandatory under the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act of 1987. The law was amended in 2007 but driver’s license suspension remains an expensive and difficult barrier to repair for ex-offenders. The loss of a driver’s license limits one’s employability as well as mobility and is counterintuitive to the payment of fines related to driver’s license suspension and other legal financial obligations.
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Nearly two thirds of prisoners reported having been assessed monetary sanctions by the court (Harris, 2010; Visher, 2004). For 20 percent, the average monthly debt exceeded their monthly income (Visher, 2004). Debt assessed for individuals returning from prison was found to range from $500 to $80,000 with a median legal financial obligation of $9,091 (Harris, 2010). For some individuals, debt payments could be as high as $600 a month (Visher, 2004). Exacerbated by low-wage jobs and limited employment prospects post incarceration, the ability to manage financial insecurity often involves dependence on family members post incarceration (Western, 2015).
Family reunification is integral to prisoner reentry. More than half of people held in the nation’s prisons are parents with children under the age of 18 (Glaze, 2010). Child support orders are a particular challenge for individuals returning home from incarceration. While most incarcerated individuals with required child support orders reported making payments prior to imprisonment, the overwhelming majority owed back support, and some owed more than $400 a month (Roman, 2015). For individuals who reported owing money for child support, their child support debt accounted for 90% or more of their total debt (Visher, 2004).
The combination of low wages and high debt may discourage people from taking and keeping jobs in the formal economy (Levington, 2007). Employment is a significant protective factor in reducing the likelihood for returning to criminal behavior. Strategies to improve outcomes for individuals leaving prison must include promoting gainful employment and reducing unmanageable legal financial obligations. For more recommendations, please visit Recommendations for Criminal Justice Reform.
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