Karen Welch attends the Mississippi Mass Incarceration Rally in Brandon on July 30, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America
In 2019, people who had touched the criminal justice system in Mississippi held $507 million in debt as a result — more than double the $243 million they owed in 2009, according to a new report by the Hope Policy Institute.
While court-ordered financial burdens grow, the minimum wage hasn’t budged and overall inflation-adjusted wages in Mississippi actually dropped in that same timeframe, according to a Mississippi Today analysis.
Even many who finish their sentences — often coined their “debt to society” — are saddled with very literal debts that prevent them from the opportunities they need to thrive outside of prison. The consequences are highly concentrated in the Deep South, the report found, where people are both incarcerated and living in poverty at higher rates. On top of this burden, people exiting jails and prisons are often shut out of financial institutions — in some cases simply as a result of a lack of identification — making it virtually impossible to build wealth for the future.
The researchers found that these people face a domino effect: Because of a lack of identification, they struggle to access traditional banking and loans, leading them to utilize high-cost loans that prevent them from building good credit, which makes it more difficult for them to get a job.
Then, in some cases, their struggle to afford payments towards their court-ordered debts results in further punishment, even re-incarceration.
“In fact, in Mississippi, there are four restitution centers across the state serving as debtor’s prisons as formerly incarcerated individuals work to earn money to pay off court-ordered debts,” the report reads, referencing a Mississippi Today and The Marshall Project investigation.
The setbacks caused by the criminal justice system also overlap with other areas of government and social services, such as the child support system, Mississippi Today also investigated. One man Hope Policy Institute researchers interviewed worked to pay off all of his criminal fines so he could get his driver’s license back, only for it to be suspended three months later because he had gotten behind on child support.
“Basically, I was behind on child support for being in prison for 2 years,” he said.
When he was on parole, he said, “They put pressure on you and try to scare you and say they’ll hold you in violation. But the thing is, I’m on good behavior and I pay my supervision fee of $55 a month for parole… I just found out that I can’t get life insurance because I’m on parole.”
The institute recommends governments and private partners address consequences of this mounting debt by waiving fines and fees within the justice system, creating a small business loan program for the formerly incarcerated and adopting programs that assist people in securing proper identification.
“It is imperative that policy makers prioritize the easing of debt collection practices and prevent the accumulation of debt during incarceration – the costs of which are disproportionately borne by people with low-incomes,” Calandra Davis, policy analyst and author of the report. “Upon re-entry, access to financial services is critical for placing people on a path towards economic security and opportunity.”
Hope Credit Union is working to remove financial barriers for folks exiting the criminal justice system by allowing family members to open accounts on behalf of inmates before their release, accepting alternative identification and non-traditional credit to open accounts and issue loans and offering financial education classes.