Debtors' Prisons Make the Poor Poorer

Incarcerating people for not paying fees they can't afford isn't generating revenue -- it's just creating more government spending. And making it almost impossible for people to rejoin society ensures that people will wind up back in prison.
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Co-authored by Roopal Patel

The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times recently reported on a growing national trend in states and cities to raise and aggressively collect criminal justice fees. And as we've explained, the government often jails people who can't afford to pay these fees.

This trend is driven by struggling states' and cities' efforts to close their budget gaps. But incarcerating people for not paying fees that they can't afford isn't generating any government revenue -- it's just creating more government spending. For example, Rhode Island sent Ricardo Graham to prison for 40 days at a cost to the state of $4,000 because he couldn't pay $745.

When Ricardo Graham was found guilty of a crime, he wasn't just punished with a prison sentence. He also received additional forms of punishment -- including a host of fees and fines associated with his conviction (like court fees, jail stay fees and even public defender fees). He was expected to pay these fees upon his release from prison. At the same time, he was also given a public criminal record -- which makes it difficult or near impossible to find employment. Having a public criminal record also often bans people from public housing and public benefits, making it harder to get back on their feet, and strips them of the right to vote -- completely ostracizing them from society.

Even if folks are lucky enough to find a job despite the stigma of a criminal conviction, the wages they earn go toward paying off their old criminal justice debt instead of toward building a new life. Such policies just funnel people into a cycle of poverty. With this kind of policymaking trending, it's no surprise that the number of Americans near or below the poverty level has reached an all time high.

By making it almost impossible for people to rejoin society and restart their lives, these collateral consequences of convictions -- like fees and bans from public housing -- pretty much ensure that people will wind up back in prison. When someone has already served their time in prison, there is no public safety rational to continue punishing them.

There is also no economic rationale. Incarcerating more and more American workers during a global recession will not help the country get back on its feet. If we really want all people to contribute to our economy, we need to provide them with the necessary tools to do so. This involves creating and funding reentry, educational and job training and placement programs. Contrary to popular belief, these programs aren't a waste of money. They are smart investments in our country: research has conclusively proven that their benefits far outweigh their upstart costs and they help reduce recidivism, lower the crime rate, strengthen communities, and strengthen our economy. These alternate policy options are far smarter ways to improve our country and our communities.

Roopal Patel is Katz Fellow/Counsel and Inimai Chettiar is Director for the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The Brennan Center's Justice Program focuses on improving our system of justice by ending unnecessary incarceration, securing full legal representation for the poor, and ensuring equal access to the courts while eradicating racial disparities.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

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