Life after prison can be a huge challenge—and this is definitely true when it comes to money. The formerly incarcerated often have trouble finding work and stable housing because of prohibitions against people with criminal records. But some of the biggest financial challenges for the formerly incarcerated may stem directly from their crimes.
Increasingly, jurisdictions across the country are assessing hefty court fines and fees, called legal financial obligations (LFOs), on defendants, requiring them to pay thousands of dollars or face more jail time, according to Alexes Harris, the author of A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions for the Poor. Harris talked to one woman who was a victim of domestic violence and spent eight years in the prison system for shooting the father of her son. She’d been assessed $33,000 in LFOs, but 13 years after her conviction, despite minimum monthly payments she made, interest had brought her debt to $72,000.
Legal financial obligations “reinforce poverty, destabilize community reentry, and relegate impoverished debtors to a lifetime of punishment because their poverty leaves them unable to fulfill expectations of accountability,” Harris writes. Many people who end up in jail are poor already, and unable to pay even the smallest sanctions. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 57 percent of men ages 27 to 42 earned less than $22,500 a year before they were locked up, suggesting that earnings after would be even lower.