Who Pays? Impact of Incarceration on Families

The Ella Baker Center‘s recent report, titled Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families employed trained community researchers who reached directly into communities in 14 states, probing into the financial costs faced when a family member goes to jail or prison, the resulting effects on physical and mental health, and the challenges and barriers encountered by all when an individual returns home. The research included surveys with 712 formerly incarcerated people, 368 family members of the formerly incarcerated, 27 employers, and 34 focus groups with family members and individuals impacted by incarceration.

The key findings of the report are as follows (to read the full report, click here):

People with convictions are saddled with copious fees, fines, and debt at the same time that their economic opportunities are diminished, resulting in a lack of economic stability and mobility. Forty-eight percent of families in our survey overall were unable to afford the costs associated with a conviction, while among poor families (making less than $15,000 per year), 58% were unable to afford these costs. Sixty-seven percent of formerly incarcerated individuals associated with our survey were still unemployed or underemployed five years after their release.

Many families lose income when a family member is removed from household wage earning and struggle to meet basic needs while paying fees, supporting their loved one financially, and bearing the costs of keeping in touch. Nearly 2 in 3 families (65%) with an incarcerated member were unable to meet their family’s basic needs. Fortynine percent struggled with meeting basic food needs and 48% had trouble meeting basic housing needs because of the financial costs of having an incarcerated loved one.

Women bear the brunt of the costs—both financial and emotional—of their loved one’s incarceration. In 63% of cases, family members on the outside were primarily responsible for court-related costs associated with conviction. Of the family members primarily responsible for these costs, 83% were women.

In addition, families incur large sums of debt due to their experience with incarceration. Across respondents of all income brackets, the average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees alone was $13,607, almost one year’s entire annual income for respondents who earn less than $15,000 per year.

Despite their often-limited resources, families are the primary resource for housing, employment, and health needs of their formerly incarcerated loved ones, filling the gaps left by diminishing budgets for reentry services. Two-thirds (67%) of respondents’ families helped them find housing. Nearly one in five families (18%) involved in our survey faced eviction, were denied housing, or did not qualify for public housing once their formerly incarcerated family member returned. Reentry programs, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations combined did not provide housing and other support at the levels that families did.

Incarceration damages familial relationships and stability by separating people from their support systems, disrupting continuity of families, and causing lifelong health impacts that impede families from thriving. The high cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated family members led more than one in three families (34%) into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone. Family members who were not able to talk or visit with their loved ones regularly were much more likely to report experiencing negative health impacts related to a family member’s incarceration.

The stigma, isolation, and trauma associated with incarceration have direct impacts across families and communities. Of the people surveyed, about one in every two formerly incarcerated persons and one in every two family members experienced negative health impacts related to their own or a loved one’s incarceration. Families, including their incarcerated loved ones, frequently reported Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, nightmares, hopelessness, depression, and anxiety. Yet families have little institutional support for healing this trauma and becoming emotionally and financially stable during and post incarceration.

These impacts hit women of color and their families more substantially than others, deepening inequities and societal divides that have pushed many into the criminal justice system in the first place. Almost one in every four women and two of five Black women are related to someone who is incarcerated.4

Poverty, in particular, perpetuates the cycle of incarceration, while incarceration itself leads to greater poverty. Estimates report that nearly 40% of all crimes are directly attributable to poverty5 and the vast majority (80%) of incarcerated individuals are low-income.6 In fact about two-thirds of those in jail report incomes below the poverty line.7 The research in this report confirms that the financial costs of incarceration and the barriers to employment and economic mobility upon release further solidify the link between incarceration and poverty.

Most of all, this report’s collaborative research found that while supportive families and communities can help reduce recidivism rates, these bedrocks of support lack the necessary resources to help incarcerated individuals serve out their sentences and reenter society successfully. It is not enough to reform the criminal justice system without considering its purpose and impact on communities. Institutions with power must acknowledge the disproportionate impacts the current system has on women, low-income communities, and communities of color and address and redress the policies that got us here. Additionally, society as a whole must rethink our approach to accountability and rehabilitation, shift perceptions, and remove barriers that prevent formerly incarcerated individuals and their families from getting another chance at life.

Pope Francis to Visit Philadelphia Jail: From Domestic Triviality to Human Rights Crime

Pope Francis greets a refugee during mass at the Church of
the Gesu (Italy, 2013). Photo courtesy the Jesuit Refugee Service.

Among Pope Francis plans for his stay in Philadelphia is a visit to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

Local activists are hoping that the visit will draw attention to the atrocious conditions in the jail, but that is not all. As Maurice Chammah writes in the Marshall Project:

Ironically, Curran-Fromhold was opened in 1995 in part to deal with overcrowding. But by 2001 the Philadelphia Inquirer was reporting the system could no longer “keep pace with arrests,” a problem, the newspaper noted, that had hit jails in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and other large cities as police focused on making frequent arrests for low-level crimes. Many of the men and women arrested for these lesser crimes could not make bail, so they stayed. From 1999 to 2008, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, “the percentage of bed-days in the Philadelphia jails consumed by pretrial inmates on an annual basis rose from 44 percent of the total to 57 percent.” In 2009, the Philadelphia Prison System, designed to hold roughly 8,000 people, was holding more than 9,000. 

The numbers don’t capture how these jails feel, though. Lawsuits against the conditions at Curran-Fromhold have described how three prisoners are sometimes housed in cells designed for two. The odd man out sleeps in a plastic cot on the floor called a “blue boat.” One inmate, Everett Keith Thomas, scribbled on a handwritten federal complaint in October 2014, “I awakened to find mouse feces on my face and blanket in the blue boat.” Jail officials say they are careful never to keep an inmate in a triple-cell for more than 45 days.

Chammah hopes that the Pope will join the growing movement for prison reform:

You are probably aware that over the last few years there has been a major shift in the politics of criminal justice throughout the U.S. Philadelphia is no different, and city officials have begun to look at criminal justice reform for its own sake — not just to satisfy judges and civil rights lawyers.

Last year, the city received $750,000 from the U.S. Justice Dept. to improve services for former jail inmates as they reenter the community. In May, the city was one of twenty to receive a grant of $150,000 from the MacArthur Foundation as a part of their Safety and Justice Challenge, which the city is using to analyze its criminal justice data and try to find ways to reduce the jail population. (If MacArthur is impressed, the city may be selected to receive up to $4 million for this project). In July, the city’s likely next mayor, Jim Kenney, indicated that he might push for Philadelphia to eliminate cash bail for some pretrial defendants, allowing them to be supervised in the community rather than locked up, further easing the burden on the jail system.

He ends his letter to the Pope thus:

You happen to be catching our country at a particularly rich moment of reassessment, and many — both jailers and jailed — hope you will contribute to that moment.

Of course, I agree with Chammah; the Pope’s visit is happening as the humonetarian move is in full swing, and could only contribute to this welcome trend. But I think it will do something even more important: it will highlight what has been, for many years, perceived as a domestic problem to the level of a human rights crime deserving of international attention.

One of the things that always struck me as odd is the extent to which the international community is preoccupied with international, or foreign, conditions, to the exclusion of the domestic ones. I was raised, of course, on the distinctions the Israeli legal system makes between domestic, “ordinary” criminal behavior and “security crime”, which is often a false dichotomy. But I see the same meme in literature and film that highlight the misery of Westerners doing time in exotic, Eastern facilities, such as Brad Davis in Turkey in Midnight Express or Bridget Jones in Thailand in The Edge of Reason. There’s a certain degree of perverted Orientalism in these accounts. No doubt, the experience of being incarcerated far away from home in a foreign culture is pretty shocking. But the focus on these unusual situations has the effect of trivializing the “usual” horrors of being incarcerated at home.

Shane Bauer, who was incarcerated in Iran, visited California prisons upon his release and return home. Much to his horror, which he documents in this Mother Jones article, he found domestic incarceration conditions to be worse. The horrific medical neglect and unnecessary, iatrogenic death toll exposed in Brown v. Plata would yield international outrage if it was reported from a developing country. The fact that we incarcerate juveniles in adult institutions and put them in solitary confinement would raise a serious alarm and much tongue-clucking if it were reported to happen in a so-called primitive country.

Some of these conditions have received international attention. Our use of long-term solitary confinement has been reviewed and severely criticized by the U.N. expert on torture. Because torture is no less torture if it happens to domestic citizens on domestic soil. It is hoped that the Pope’s visit will lead to a reframing of U.S. prison conditions as a serious human rights crime deserving of international attention and corrective measures.

College Education Grants for Inmates Restored

Pell grants for inmates pursuing college education, which were terminated during the Clinton administration, have been renewed! The Wall Street Journal reports:

The plan, set to be unveiled Friday by the secretary of education and the attorney general, would allow potentially thousands of inmates in the U.S. to gain access to Pell grants, the main form of federal aid for low-income college students. The grants cover up to $5,775 a year in tuition, fees, books and other education-related expenses.

Prisoners received $34 million in Pell grants in 1993, according to figures the Department of Education provided to Congress at the time. But a year later, Congress prohibited state and federal prison inmates from getting Pell grants as part of broad anticrime legislation, leading to a sharp drop in the number of in-prison college programs. Supporters of the ban contended federal aid should only go to law-abiding citizens.

Between the mid-1990s and 2013, the U.S. prison population doubled to about 1.6 million inmates, many of them repeat offenders, Justice Department figures show. Members of both parties—including President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky—have called for a broad examination of criminal justice, such as rewriting sentencing guidelines.

A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. found that inmates who participated in education programs, including college courses, had significantly lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who didn’t.

Some congressional Democrats have proposed lifting the ban. Meanwhile, administration officials have indicated they would use a provision of the Higher Education Act that gives the Education Department the authority to temporarily waive rules, such as the Pell-grant ban, as part of an experiment to study their effectiveness.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch are expected to announce the program, which likely would last three to five years to yield data on recidivism rates, at a prison in Jessup, Md., on Friday. Key details aren’t yet clear, such as which institutions and what types of convicts would be allowed to participate.

I really like this administration’s focus on rehabilitation and return-on-investment strategies. I hope Obama will manage to accomplish as much as possible in this arena before the election in 2016.

Obama’s Post-Punitivism

President Obama’s speech yesterday at the NAACP was a dream come true for American prison reformers, who have waited for decades to hear a U.S. president retreat from the punitive proclamations we have gotten so used to hearing.

I highly recommend listening to the speech in its entirety, but wanted to point out a few highlights:

1. In the spirit of the events of the last few months, Obama links the NAACP’s activism in the area of criminal justice reform and poverty to their historical standing up to lynching and voting restrictions.

2. “For the first time”, said the President, “the crime rate and incarceration rate both went down at the same time.” This is the first time a U.S. president is acknowledging low crime rates.

3. “Crime is like an epidemic; the best time to stop it is before it starts. . . if we make investments early in our children we will reduce the need to incarcerate those kids.” Obama references investing in early childhood and in summer jobs, mentioning that these will “save the taxpayers money, if we are consistent about it.” These statements are reminiscent of President Ford’s statements on crime (for more on this, see Cheap on Crime.)

4. Obama states an unwavering commitment to enfranchising felons: “If folks have served their time, and they’ve re-entered society, they should be able to vote.”

5. As befitting the setting for the speech, Obama spends a great deal of time “un-othering” crime, by speaking about how “other people’s kids” should be treated like “our kids”, speaking directly about the urgent need to restore trust between the police and the communities it serves.

6. Obama discusses sentencing reform and urges a sentencing reform bill that should be “passed through Congress this year”, which will restore judicial discretion and invest in diversion programs, which “can save taxpayers thousands of dollars per defendants each year.”

(read more about the speech on Slate.)

Some of this is right out of the Cheap on Crime playbook: diversion, nonpunitivism, and rehabilitation are cheaper, make sense in the face of declining crime rates, and should therefore be a bipartisan concent. But there is also a concept of dignity as a communitarian value that is being advanced here. Echoing sentiments that remind me of his days as a community organizer, Obama expect solidarity from his constituents, and he expects them to feel responsible for even the weaker links in the American social chain. Toward the end of his second term, Obama wants to galvanize his supporters to fix some of the things that are wrong in the criminal justice system.

It bears to mention that Obama’s criminal justice mandate extends only to the federal system, which houses a small minority of the inmates in the United States. But even so, changes to the federal sentencing laws may become an important influence on state legislation and, perhaps, also on federal judicial review of state practices. It is also worth mentioning that most presidential candidates for the 2016 elections–from Bernie Sanders to Ted Cruz–are not opposed to the ideas that Obama articulates in this speech; notably, Bill Clinton expressed enthusiasm and relief for his wife’s platform of reversing the punitive excesses of his own presidency. In short, being panicky and punitive is passé, and being fiscally conscious and community-oriented is “in”.

How much of this will translate to real-life policies remains to be seen, but it is encouraging to think that Obama still has a year and a half left to wrangle Congressional Republicans on criminal justice. And he’s dealing with less opposition from the Right than he would have in, say, 2006.

Britain’s Correctional Crisis

Yesterday’s Guardian reported that English and Welsh prisons are “at their worst level for 10 years.” This is according to a report by Nick Hardwick, the exiting Chief Inspector of Prisons, which is apparently a thankless job fraught with political pressure and incentives to conform. Hardwick reports that

staff shortages, overcrowding and a rising level of violence fuelled by a rapid increase in the use of legal highs have all contributed to a significant overall decline in safety.

The chief inspector even reports that prison officers at Wormwood Scrubs showed him cells that were so bad that they told him: “I wouldn’t keep a dog in there.”

His findings suggest that the “rehabilitation revolution” promised five years ago by the last government has yet to get under way.

The chief inspector says alternatives to custody should be considered to bring down the prison population, which currently stands at 86,255. He says this may be “unpalatable” to politicians but so are many other public spending choices the government has to make.

“Our own assessments about safety were consistent with data that the national offender management service (Noms) itself produced. You were more likely to die in prison than five years ago. More prisoners were murdered, killed themselves, self-harmed and were victims of assaults than five years ago,” said Hardwick. “The number of assaults and serious assaults against staff also rose.”

Hardwick says he found that overcrowding was in some cases exacerbated by extremely poor environments and squalid conditions. “At Wormwood Scrubs, staff urged me to look at the cells. ‘I wouldn’t keep a dog in there’, one told me,” he reported, adding that he found filthy cells covered in offensive graffiti in cockroach-infested wings.

Launching his report, he said: “It cannot go on like this. The cost is unsustainable. The profound effects on rehabilitation outcomes are unsustainable.”

Does any of this sound familiar?

Many of the commentators about mass incarceration lump developments in the UK with those in the US. A good example is David Garland’s The Culture of Control, which argues that both countries are plagued by a similar atmosphere of punitivism, panic, and a growing discourse revolving around the underclass. Garland discusses both countries in tandem, linking the rise of a massive criminological effort to late 20th century developments, which emerged as a reaction to post-WW2 “war on poverty” programming. The commitment to treating the problem of crime in the community, tailoring sentences to the offender, and engaging in “penal welfarism” had vanished by the late 1970s–partly as a result of rising crime rates–and the social and economic changes led to a new paradigm in crime control, consisting of two contradictor models: “criminologies of the self”–reliance on situational crime prevention and an industry of defense against crime, and “criminologies of the other”–an increasingly isolating and punitive regime that demonizes and dehumanizes offenders and inmates.

There are some good reasons for the comparison; Garland is focusing particularly on the combination of Reaganism and Thatcherism as the turning point. But the book does not draw fine distinctions between the two countries, which engage in considerably different (though uniformly insidious) politics of race in the context of their criminal justice system. The Guardian story makes me wonder whether the Cheap on Crime moment in the United States, as well as the Obama administration’s commitment to shrinking the punitive apparatus, has arrived in the UK as well, and might change things there for the better.

SB 443: Bring an End to Civil Asset Forfeiture in CA!

A new bill sponsored by Senator Holly Mitchell proposes to reform the absurdities of civil asset forfeiture in California.

From the bill text:

The purpose of this bill is to 

1) require a criminal conviction for forfeiture of alleged cash drug proceeds and assets in excess of 
2) reduce the percentage of forfeiture proceeds distributed to prosecutors, law enforcement and the 
General Fund; 
3) distribute 5% of forfeiture proceeds to each of the courts and public defense; 
4) require that California standards be met before federal forfeiture proceeds can be distributed to 
a state of local law enforcement agency through equitable sharing; 
5) grant a right to counsel for indigent defendants in civil drug forfeiture matters; 
6) authorize attorneys' fees and costs for prevailing defendants in forfeiture cases; 
7) prohibit adoption by federal authorities of a state forfeiture matter; and 
8) require the California Department of Justice's annual asset forfeiture report to include data on 
forfeitures initiated under California law,federal adoptions, forfeiture case that were prosecuted 
under federal law, the number of suspects charged with drug crimes, the number of criminal charges brought under each of state and federal law and the disposition of these cases.

In short, to stop this travesty:

Does It Matter Whether People Support the Death Penalty?

Yesterday’s Asahi Shimbun reported a drop in support for the death penalty in Japan:

In a sign of wavering support for capital punishment, the first decline in the percentage of Japanese who support the death penalty has been noted, although the support rate remains about 80 percent, according to a Cabinet Office survey released Jan. 24.

The decline in support is the first since the survey, which is conducted every five years, began in 1994, it added.

The high percentage in the survey apparently shows the public’s continuing sympathy for victims of violent crime.

Now, 80 percent is still a lot, and we should keep in mind that death penalty law varies fairly dramatically across Asian countries. But here’s something interesting: there is considerable support for the death penalty even in countries that abolished it long ago, like the UK. Here’s an assortment of studies on public opinion in various abolitionist and retentionist countries.

It’s important to point out that, in most abolitionist countries, a majority of citizens was in favor of the death penalty at the time of abolition. I have three thoughts about this:

(1) Abolishing the death penalty is a top-down move, not one that typically calls for broad populistic support. For more on this, read Pieter Spierenburg’s The Spectacle of Suffering.
(2) Using the financial crisis to abolish the death penalty nationwide in the United States is possible and worth doing, regardless of popular support. Once it goes away, it won’t come back.
(3) Over time, the arc of justice bends toward abolition. Whether or not a country has abolished it, and whether or not its citizens are in the throes of inertia, support wanes. That’s a good thing.

Props to Jonathan Marshall for the link.

Prop 47 Reaps Rewards

Wonderful news via KPCC:

Los Angeles County probation officials reported Thursday that Los Angeles County’s jail population is at its lowest level since realignment sent it soaring in 2012 – and they expect it to keep dropping. They credit voter-approved Proposition 47, which lowered penalties for drug crimes.

In a status report to the county Board of Supervisors, officials said L.A. County’s jails had fewer than 16,000 inmates at the end of 2014. Just two months earlier, there were more than 19,000 inmates.

L.A.’s jail population was last under 16,000 inmates in 2011. The numbers began to climb when the state launched its massive “realignment” effort. That policy called for sentencing non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual offenders to county jail, rather than state prison, which led to overcrowding in the county’s jails.

Proposition 47 passed in November and has effectively erased the crowding caused by realignment.

Officials said the drop has allowed them to keep more offenders incarcerated for larger portions of their sentence. They still don’t have enough space to keep everyone for their entire sentence.

But officials expect the jail population to keep dropping.

About 2,500 jail inmates are likely eligible for re-sentencing and early release, according to the probation department. Inmates must apply for re-sentencing, and have it approved in court.

A few comments:

(1) This is further proof that it pays off to be cheap on crime.
(2) It’s beautiful to see Prop 47 do what the realignment could not – put people out of incarceration in the first place, rather than shift them across jurisdictions – and cure some of the financial and physical bulges created by realignment.
(3) I’m now sitting and waiting for the other shoe to drop–the stories analyzing the impact of Prop 47 on crime rates. When these start coming through, be mindful of research quality; a lot has happened since the recession, and since the realignment, that needs to be controlled for.
(4) Plenty of the L.A. jail inmates are pretrial detainees, who of course are not affected by the passage of Prop 47. How about alleviating some of that unnecessary crowding via sensible bail reform?

Props to Francine Lipman for the link.

2014 Election Postmortem: YES on 47!

With enough information to comfortably call appointments and shots, and with some distressing news for Democrats in the Senate, I’d like to focus on the important news on the local scene.

The most important of these for CCC readers is the passage of Prop 47 with 58.5% voter support. The proposition will downgrade several nonviolent, nonserious offenses to misdemeanors, and will allow people currently serving felony time for these misdemeanors to petition for resentencing.

A few things that bear mentioning: First, many of the people whose offenses are affected by Prop 47 are already doing time in jails, as a function of Realignment, and some of them might even be doing a split sentence, which means they’re not in confinement at all. As such, they are also already under the authority of local probation offices and not of the statewide parole apparatus. It would be interesting to know, therefore, how much resentencing would really need to happen. My suspicion is that the effects of Prop 47 will be mostly felt in the counties that did Realignment wrong–building more jails and not using split sentencing–rather than in counties that embraced the reform. The late awakening of the Los Angeles D.A. preceded this proposition only by a few months.

Second: if that’s the case, and if Realignment already did most of this, what practical impact might this have? Well, for starters, think of all the offenders doing time who could not vote in 2014 because they were classified as felons–even though they were physically doing time in jail. Reclassified now as misdemeanants, these folks will be allowed to vote in 2016. This is excellent news that affect many thousands of Californians. Also, there are several Third Strikers whose third offense would now qualify as a misdemeanor, not a felony, and would therefore not trigger the law at all. Those folks are applying for resentencing anyway, as a result of Prop 36 and thanks to the efforts of the Stanford Three Strikes clinic, but I think their chances of prevailing may have improved.

And third: The passage of Prop 47 doesn’t mean that people have become more humane or care more about offenders. The proposition was a classic humonetarian move, appealing to people’s financial prudence, and it was supported by folks of all political stripes, including Newt Gingrich. I only regret that the proofs for Cheap on Crime are already set, otherwise I could add a few hefty paragraphs about this campaign. It’s right out of the Cheap on Crime playbook.

Other than that: Prop 46 did not pass; it was a mixed bag of arguably good things and litigation-hungry things, and I’m not quite sure whether to celebrate or mourn its defeat.

And finally:

Dear Governor Brown, I congratulate you for earning a second term. As California limits governors to two terms, this is your opportunity to take the prison crisis seriously without worrying about reelection statistics. This is an opportunity to reform felon voting laws, to abolish the death penalty (which I know you think is ridiculous and expensive) and to make good things happen for formerly incarcerated people in their communities. This is an opportunity to outlaw Pay to Stay and to abolish long-term solitary confinement in California. Please, take this opportunity and let’s make history. Don’t let a serious financial crisis go to waste.