Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families

By Saneta de Vuono-powell, Chris Schweidler, Alicia Walters, and Azadeh Zohrabi of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design

Each year, the United States spends $80 billion1 to lock away more than 2.4 million people in its jails and prisons2— budgetary allocations that far outpace spending on housing, transportation, and higher education.3

But costs run deeper than budget line items and extend far beyond the sentences served. These costs are rarely quantified and measured and primarily impact incarcerated populations and the families and communities from whom they are separated, the same people who are already stigmatized, penalized, and punished.

Families pay both the apparent and hidden costs while their loved ones serve out sentences in our jails and prisons. Because families are formed in diverse ways and take many forms, the definition used in this report encompasses families built across generations and borders and within and beyond blood relations. The families in this report and those who support loved ones bear the burden to help those individuals re-acclimate to society after serving time. Four decades of unjust criminal justice policies have created a legacy of collateral impacts that last for generations and are felt most deeply by women, low-income families, and communities of color.

In March 2014, the Ella Baker Center for Human RightsForward Together, and Research Action Design launched a collaborative participatory research project with 20 community-based organizations across the country to address this unjust legacy.

Trained community researchers reached directly into communities in 14 states, probing into the financial costs faced when a family member goes to jail or prison, the resulting effects on physical and mental health, and the challenges and barriers encountered by all when an individual returns home. The research included surveys with 712 formerly incarcerated people, 368 family members of the formerly incarcerated, 27 employers, and 34 focus groups with family members and individuals impacted by incarceration. The project revealed that many of the costs and penalties associated with incarceration continue long after incarceration ends and reach far beyond the individual being punished, with negative impacts for families and communities.

The findings show that the long-term costs extend beyond the significant sums already paid by individuals and their families for immediate and myriad legal expenses, including cost of attorney, court fees and fines, and phone and visitation charges. In fact, these costs often amount to one year’s total household income for a family and can force a family into debt. Latent costs include, but are not limited to, mental health support, care for untreated physical ailments, the loss of children sent to foster care or extended family, permanent declines in income, and loss of opportunities like education and employment for both the individuals incarcerated and their family members, opportunities that could lead to a brighter future.

Specifically, the research group learned:

People with convictions are saddled with copious fees, fines, and debt at the same time that their economic opportunities are diminished, resulting in a lack of economic stability and mobility. Forty-eight percent of families in our survey overall were unable to afford the costs associated with a conviction, while among poor families (making less than $15,000 per year), 58% were unable to afford these costs. Sixty-seven percent of formerly incarcerated individuals associated with our survey were still unemployed or underemployed five years after their release.

Many families lose income when a family member is removed from household wage earning and struggle to meet basic needs while paying fees, supporting their loved one financially, and bearing the costs of keeping in touch. Nearly 2 in 3 families (65%) with an incarcerated member were unable to meet their family’s basic needs. Forty-nine percent struggled with meeting basic food needs and 48% had trouble meeting basic housing needs because of the financial costs of having an incarcerated loved one.

Women bear the brunt of the costs—both financial and emotional—of their loved one’s incarceration. In 63% of cases, family members on the outside were primarily responsible for court-related costs associated with conviction. Of the family members primarily responsible for these costs, 83% were women.

In addition, families incur large sums of debt due to their experience with incarceration.Across respondents of all income brackets, the average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees alone was $13,607, almost one year’s entire annual income for respondents who earn less than $15,000 per year.

Despite their often-limited resources, families are the primary resource for housing, employment, and health needs of their formerly incarcerated loved ones, filling the gaps left by diminishing budgets for reentry services. Two-thirds (67%) of respondents’ families helped them find housing. Nearly one in five families (18%) involved in our survey faced eviction, were denied housing, or did not qualify for public housing once their formerly incarcerated family member returned. Reentry programs, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations combined did not provide housing and other support at the levels that families did.

Incarceration damages familial relationships and stability by separating people from their support systems, disrupting continuity of families, and causing lifelong health impacts that impede families from thriving. The high cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated family members led more than one in three families (34%) into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone. Family members who were not able to talk or visit with their loved ones regularly were much more likely to report experiencing negative health impacts related to a family member’s incarceration.

The stigma, isolation, and trauma associated with incarceration have direct impacts across families and communities. Of the people surveyed, about one in every two formerly incarcerated persons and one in every two family members experienced negative health impacts related to their own or a loved one’s incarceration. Families, including their incarcerated loved ones, frequently reported Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, nightmares, hopelessness, depression, and anxiety. Yet families have little institutional support for healing this trauma and becoming emotionally and financially stable during and post incarceration.

These impacts hit women of color and their families more substantially than others, deepening inequities and societal divides that have pushed many into the criminal justice system in the first place. Almost one in every four women and two of five Black women are related to someone who is incarcerated.4

Poverty, in particular, perpetuates the cycle of incarceration, while incarceration itself leads to greater poverty. Estimates report that nearly 40% of all crimes are directly attributable to poverty5and the vast majority (80%) of incarcerated individuals are low-income.6 In fact about two-thirds of those in jail report incomes below the poverty line.7 The research in this report confirms that the financial costs of incarceration and the barriers to employment and economic mobility upon release further solidify the link between incarceration and poverty.

Most of all, this report’s collaborative research found that while supportive families and communities can help reduce recidivism rates, these bedrocks of support lack the necessary resources to help incarcerated individuals serve out their sentences and reenter society successfully. It is not enough to reform the criminal justice system without considering its purpose and impact on communities. Institutions with power must acknowledge the disproportionate impacts the current system has on women, low-income communities, and communities of color and address and redress the policies that got us here. Additionally, society as a whole must rethink our approach to accountability and rehabilitation, shift perceptions, and remove barriers that prevent formerly incarcerated individuals and their families from getting another chance at life.

A BETTER APPROACH IS POSSIBLE

For decades, individuals, families, and communities— especially low-income people and communities of color—have faced destabilizing and detrimental impacts as a result of our nation’s unfair criminal justice policies. The repercussions of these policies extend far beyond sentencing and incarceration, affecting the employment, education, housing, and health of individuals and their families for years to come. A unique contribution to the body of research, the study explores the ways in which women support their incarcerated loved ones, often jeopardizing their own stability. Our nation can no longer afford the devastating financial and familial costs of incarceration if we truly want to foster communities that are healthy, sustainable, and just.

As a result of this research, recommendations are made for three key categories of critical reforms necessary to change the criminal justice system and to help stabilize and support vulnerable families, communities, and formerly incarcerated individuals: Restructuring and Reinvesting, Removing Barriers, and Restoring Opportunities.

Restructuring and Reinvesting: Following the lead of states like California, all states need to restructure their policies to reduce the number of people in jails and prisons and the sentences they serve. The money saved from reducing incarceration rates should be used instead to reinvest in services that work, such as substance abuse programs and stable housing, which have proven to reduce recidivism rates. Additionally, sentencing needs to shift focus to accountability, safety, and healing the people involved rather than punishing those convicted of crimes.

Removing Barriers: Upon release, formerly incarcerated individuals face significant barriers accessing critical resources like housing and employment that they need to survive and move forward. Many are denied public benefits like food stamps and most are unable to pursue training or education that would provide improved opportunities for the future. Families also suffer under these restrictions and risk losing support as a result of their loved one’s conviction. These barriers must be removed in order to help individuals have a chance at success, particularly the many substantial financial obligations that devastate individuals and their families. On the flip side, when incarcerated people maintain contact with their family members on the outside, their likelihood of successful reunification and reentry increases, and their chances of recidivating are reduced. For most families the cost of maintaining contact is too great to bear and must be lowered if families are to stay intact. Removing cost and other barriers to contact is essential.

Restoring Opportunities: Focusing energy on investing and supporting formerly incarcerated individuals, their families, and the communities from which they come can restore their opportunities for a brighter future and the ability to participate in society at large. Savings from criminal justice reforms should be combined with general budget allocations and invested in job training and subsidized employment services, for example, to provide the foundation necessary to help individuals and their families succeed prior to system involvement and upon reentry.

Our nation’s criminal justice system has dramatic impacts on the lives of individuals who are incarcerated and the lives of those they touch. These effects wreak financial, physical, and emotional havoc on women, families, and communities, undermining potential for a better life. The true costs of our criminal justice system are complex, deeply rooted, and demand a closer look at the multiple impacts on individuals and families. When these costs are understood and acknowledged, it becomes clear that the system—and society more broadly—must change.

For the full report, go to: ellabakercenter.org/who-pays-the-true-cost-of-incarceration-on-families

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