What we don’t think about when we think of incarceration as a solution

rusty_lock.jpgIf we think of incarceration as a solution to problems of criminal justice, we need to think about the whole picture, which amounts to a series of traps experienced by those who have "paid their debt to society." As we know, employers can still screen out criminal records with one check-box on the application -- and Gov. Hogan just last week vetoed a bill that would ban that practice. PM activist Dave Bazell gives a close-up picture of all the ways that a "debt to society" is very, very hard to completely satisfy, and how it affects poor and working families.

See also the Job Opportunities Task Force's detailed study of how Maryland carries out the "Criminalization of Poverty."



/By Dave Bazell/ If you are a parent then maybe you have used timeout to discipline your child.  If your child has done something wrong, something outside the norms of what you think they should be doing, you can might put them in chair and remove all attention from them.  This is a penalty for the child, who wants your attention.  After a few minutes of timeout your child returns to the family, receives more attention, and suffers no other penalties.

If you are a teacher with an unruly student, that student might end up in detention.  This might be an hour after school sitting in a room or doing some sort of 'community service.'  At least that is how it was
when my kids were in school.  After detention, they go home, and maybe have to explain what happened to their parents. If that was their only infraction then that's the end of it.  More serious problems could result in suspension.  But again, in principle, there are no further consequences.

Now suppose you get caught with a bunch of drugs and you are convicted f a crime and sentenced to prison for a three-year term.  What happens now?  You serve your sentence, or part of it along with some time on parole.  You made a mistake and you got in trouble.  You served your time and you should be free of further consequences.  But that is not how it works, as I have been learning because of a family member who is now serving a three-year term on a drug charge.

This individual comes from an upper middle class white family.  He did well in school but then got lost in life and made some bad decisions and wrong turns.

When I used to hear about people going to prison, I would only think about the prison term.  But there is so much more.  So legal_scales.pngmany ways that society is taking advantage of people who make mistakes and making it much harder for them to return to society as whole, contributing members.  Here are just some of the things I have overlooked in the past.

We can start with the cash bail system that keeps individuals in jail if they cannot pay for bail.  Middle class and wealthy people can pay, but lower income individuals may not be able to pay.  While this is a
simplified description of the issue, keeping people in jail based on their income can't be right.

Once you are incarcerated you don't get your mail, so bills can pile up unpaid.  An unpaid credit card balance of $500 with a monthly payment of $10 adds up to about $200 in interest over almost 6 years.
The online calculators don't allow for a $0 payment!  Then there can be outstanding phone bills, which might cost several hundred dollars.

I don't know what the phone company does if you just don't pay, other than cut off your service.  Then there is the issue of past parking violations.  In some states if you don't pay a moving violation you can have your license revoked.  When you get out of prison, no license, making it that much harder to find a job, or a place to live. And often you have to pay off your parking tab before you can get your license back.  Of course, there is the issue of income tax if you were working prior to your incarceration.  Prisons are supposed to have programs to help with filing taxes, but who would know about them?

There is the issue of your credit rating if you don't pay your bills. Your credit rating will suffer for several years and could take years to improve.  Your credit rating affects all sorts of things like your credit card interest rate (if you can even get one) your ability to get a loan, or even to rent a room.

Then there is the exorbitant charge someone has to pay to make a phone call from prison.  The calls can be expensive and the online payment facilities charge fees like 10 percent (jailatm.com) or a sliding scale of up to almost 25 percent (jpay.com) depending on what state facility you send money to.  This is a lot of money to charge families who just want to communicate and allow inmates to purchase things.  It can be a major financial burden.  Interestingly, Connecticut, which has the second highest charge for calls from prison, has a bill pending in its legislature to make the calls free ("An Act Concerning the Cost of Telecommunications Services in Correctional Facilities," HB 6714.)  And presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has signaled her support of the measure, indicating it is a nation-wide issue.

Of course, when you leave prison after more than a year, you will have a felony conviction on your record for the rest of your life.  That, of course, affects your ability to get a job or to rent or purchase a house.  If someone was convicted of a crime and has served their time, why should they have all these extra burdens imposed upon them: credit problems, outstanding balance problems, tax problems, and the stigma of having been incarcerated?

Clearly the system has been rigged against these individuals, people who have made mistakes.  We all make mistakes, but some people and their families end up paying for those mistakes more heavily and for a longer time than they should.  Connecticut's HB 6714 is a step in the right direction but there is much more to be done to make to stop repeatedly penalizing people who have served their time.


Dave Bazell is a Progressive Maryland member and activist in Howard County.