Many people released from prisons and jails have a substantial amount of debt to repay, including supervision fees, court costs, victim restitution, and child support.
- Many of the men released from prisons in two states report owing monthly probation or parole supervision fees; 12 percent owed court costs and/or fines.1
- An analysis in one jurisdiction found that the 15 percent of people on probation with restitution orders owed an average of $3,500.2
- Most people who are incarcerated have children under 18 years of age.3 Parents in one state were shown to leave prison owing an average of more than $20,000 in child support arrears.4
The financial obligations of people released from prisons and jails often go unfulfilled.
- A study of people released on parole in Colorado found that they owed an average of $16,600 in child support.9
- An examination of court-ordered obligations in 11 states found an average of $178 million per state in uncollected court costs, fines, fees, and restitution.10
- Court administrators in one state report that only 23 percent of fines are successfully collected, and no action is taken on uncollected payments. People released from prisons and jails typically have insufficient resources to pay their debts to their children, victims, and the criminal justice system.11
- Nationally, two-thirds of people detained in jails report annual incomes under $12,000 prior to arrest.12
- Most people returning to the community have difficulty finding employment upon release from incarceration, and they often rely on their families for support.13
- In one study, three-fourths of people released from prison owing child support, restitution, and supervision fees reported having difficulty paying off these debts.14
- Financial pressures and paycheck garnishment resulting from unpaid debt can increase participation in the underground economy and discourage legitimate employment.15
Victims, families, and criminal justice agencies often compete for a share of the small payments people released from prisons and jails are able to make.
- Victims need restitution to compensate for their monetary losses. And though most states have established their compensation as a "right," victims often do not receive the amounts owed to them.16
- Children whose parents are incarcerated require financial
support, yet nearly half of these children's caregivers received
government assistance to meet basic needs.17
- Criminal justice agencies are increasingly fee-driven; administrative assessments on citations fund nearly all of the Administrative Office of the Court's budget in Nevada.18 In Texas, probation fees made up 46 percent of the Travis County Probation Department's $18.3 million budget in 2006.19
Within units of state and local government, policies governing the collection of fines, fees, restitution, and child support are often at odds with one another, making it difficult for people released from prisons and jails to meet their financial obligations.
- People released from prisons and jails typically must make payments to a host of agencies, including probation departments, courts, and child support enforcement offices. While coordinated collections efforts among these agencies could increase rates of repayment to victims, families, and criminal justice agencies, there is rarely a single agency tracking all of an individual's court-ordered debts.20
- Federal law provides that a child support enforcement officer can garnish up to 65 percent of an individual's wages for child support.21 At the same time, a probation officer in most states can require that an individual dedicate 35 percent of his or her income toward the combined payment of fines, fees, surcharges, and restitution.
- Staff working for distinct agencies often lack clear guidelines as to how their collection efforts should be prioritized; some agencies prioritize the collection of fines, fees, or surcharges over restitution, while others
put the collection of restitution first.22
The inability of people released from prisons and jails to meet their financial obligations can contribute to their reincarceration.
- A study of probation revocations found that 12 percent were due at least in part to a failure to meet the financial portion of probation supervision requirements.23
1 Personal communication of unpublished findings from the Returning Home study in Texas and Ohio, Amy Solomon, Policy Associate, Urban Institute, Washington, D.C., April 6, 2006. Personal communication of unpublished findings from the Returning Home study in Texas and Ohio, Lisa Brooks, Research Associate, Urban Institute, Washington, D.C., January 11, 2007 and March 3, 2007. For more information on Returning Home, see www.urban.org/projects/reentry-portfolio/index.cfm.
2 Personal communication, Julie Begoña, Field Division Director, Maricopa County Probation Department, Arizona, April 6, 2006.
3 Mumola, Incarcerated Parents and Their Children.
4 Jessica Pearson, “Building Debt while Doing Time: Child Support and Incarceration,” Judges’ Journal 43, no. 1 (2004): 5–12.
5 Personal communication of unpublished findings from the Returning Home study in Texas, Ohio, and Illinois, Amy Solomon, Policy Associate, Urban Institute, Washington, D.C., April 6, 2006. Personal communication of unpublished findings from the Returning Home study in Texas, Ohio, and Illinois, Lisa Brooks, Research Associate, Urban Institute, Washington, D.C., January 11, 2007 and March 3, 2007. For more information on Returning Home, see www.urban.org/projects/reentry-portfolio/index.cfm.
6 These graphs present unpublished findings of the Urban Institute’s Returning Home study of released prisoners in Texas, Ohio, and Illinois. For more information on Returning Home, see www.urban.org/projects/reentry-portfolio/index.cfm.
9 Jessica Pearson and Lanae Davis, Serving Parents Who Leave Prison: Final Report on the Work and Family Life Center (Denver, Colo.: Center for Policy Research, 2001).
10 Personal communication, José Dimas, Government Relations Associate, National Center for State Courts, Virginia, December 12, 2005.
11 Personal communication, Sheila Leslie, Specialty Courts Coordinator; Chair, Health and Human Services Committee, Washoe County Assembly, Nevada, April 6, 2006.
12 Doris James, Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 201932 (Washington, D.C.: Department of Justice, 2004).
13 Steven Steurer, Linda Smith, and Alice Tracy, Three-State Recidivism Study (Lanham, Md.: Correctional Educational Association, 2001). Sharon M. Dietrich, “Criminal Records and Employment: Ex-Offenders Thwarted in Attempts to Earn a Living for Their
Families,” in Amy E. Hirsch, Sharon M. Dietrich, Rue Landau, Peter D. Schneider, Irv Ackelsberg, Judith Bernstein-Baker, and Joseph Hohenstein, Every Door Closed: Barriers Facing Parents with Criminal Records (Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Penn.: Center for Law and Social Policy and Community Legal Services, 2002). Nancy La Vigne, Christy Visher, and Jennifer Castro, Chicago Prisoners’ Reflections on Returning Home (Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 2004).
14 La Vigne, Visher, and Castro, Chicago Prisoners’ Reflections.
15 Harry Holzer, Paul Offner, and Elaine Sorensen, Declining Employment among Young, Black, Less-Educated Men (Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 2004).
16 Office for Victims of Crime, New Directions from the Field.
17 Jeremy Travis and Michelle Waul, eds., Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities (Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 2004).
18 Personal communication, Ron Titus, Director, Administrative Office of the Courts, Nevada, May 30, 2006, February 12, 2007.
19 Personal communication, Donna Farris, Division Director of Operations, Travis County Probation Department, Texas, December 28, 2006, February 13, 2007.
20 Federal law requires that child support be collected separately by designated child support enforcement officials. However, respondents to an unpublished joint CSG/APPA survey of 200 members of the American Probation and Parole Association conducted in December 2005 reported that separate agencies within a given jurisdiction are often responsible for collecting probation supervision fees, court costs, fines, and restitution.
21 15 U.S.C. § 1673 (a).
22 A CSG Justice Center review of state restitution policies in 2006 found that the following states prioritize restitution: Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. States that prioritize other fines, fees, or surcharges include Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, and Georgia. Federal law (42 U.S.C. § 666) prioritizes child support obligations above all other debts owed to the state, including restitution, fines, fees, and surcharges.
23 Robyn Cohen, Probation and Parole Violators in State Prison, 1991, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 149076 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1995).