Coming home from prison to a fiscal crisis.

My colleagues at Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections recently released a report on how the present fiscal crisis has impacted states’ corrections appropriations in the United States. The report cites decades of unprecedented growth in state prison populations and spending, and discusses how the fiscal crisis has made policy makers reevaluate this trajectory and pursue serious reforms. As a result, according to a report by the Pew Center on the States, in 2009 the total prison population of the 50 states went down for the first time in 38 years.

This demonstrates that saving money during a financial crisis is a powerful incentive for policy makers to determine what is not working and change course. What is strange is that such a potent incentive for policy makers has not been extended to ex-offenders facing a similar fiscal crisis.

A more recent Pew report shows that ex-offenders face grim economic realities when they are released. Serving time keeps them stuck in the lowest earnings bracket and reduces their annual earnings by 40 percent. By age 48, the formerly incarcerated will have earned $179,000 less than if they had never been in jail or prison. Further compounding this economic picture, says a new report by New York University’s Brennan Center, are the thousands of dollars in court costs, fees, and fines that courts rely on to generate revenue.

Both reports demonstrate what appears to be the perfect storm for recidivism: Many ex-offenders who are unlikely to find work, earn a living wage, or move up the economic ladder are faced with thousands of dollars in criminal justice debt, often regardless of their ability to pay. If the debts are not paid, they result in aggressive penalties ranging from late fees and high interest rates to extended probation terms and additional jail time.

Before joining Vera I worked with a nonprofit organization in Boston called The Clapham Set. Through a public-private partnership with the Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court, we piloted a program that focused on the nexus between criminal justice debt and reentry. In exchange for working on a résumé, completing job training, going on job interviews, attending mental health or substance abuse counseling, and participating in other programs and services designed to increase participants’ chances for success, individuals received credit toward outstanding court costs, fees, and fines. Although the program still awaits evaluation, the anecdotal evidence demonstrates that unemployed ex-offenders with few job prospects and unpaid criminal justice debt will substantially alter their behavior—much like policy makers in the current fiscal crisis have—if they are able to reduce their criminal justice costs.

As jurisdictions across the country experience deep budget cuts, they are relying more than ever on court costs, fees, and fines to generate revenue. At the same time, a trenchant and growing body of research shows that these costs have significant adverse consequences for individuals who are returning to the community upon release. The money that courts are collecting to get by could be undercutting their larger efforts to prevent recidivism in the future.

Although jurisdictions offer a range of incentives for former offenders to change their behavior, such as credit for “good time,” early parole eligibility, and shorter probation and parole supervision terms, very few offer financial incentives. Given the tremendous motivating power of money to change deeply ingrained behavior, programs that offer offenders the ability to reintegrate in exchange for court costs, fees, and fines hold great promise. It is my hope that researchers and other experts in the field will begin to evaluate and demonstrate whether such programs are effective and whether they should be used to improve reentry outcomes and reduce recidivism rates in jurisdictions throughout the country.

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