Report Highlights Economic Costs of Incarceration on Families

The costs and penalties associated with incarceration continue long after an individual's incarceration ends and affect entire families and communities, a report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design — in partnership with more than a dozen community and civil rights organizations — argues.

Based on a survey of more than a thousand former inmates and their families, the report, Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families (66 pages, PDF), found that 20 percent of families surveyed were forced to go into debt to cover attorney and court fees and fines — which averaged $13,607 — as well as phone charges and visitation costs. Moreover, 48 percent of families with an incarcerated member were unable to afford restitution and attorney fees, while 65 percent were unable to meet basic needs such as paying for food (49 percent) and housing (48 percent). In addition, incarcerated individuals and their families faced an array of latent costs including mental health support, care for untreated physical ailments, the impact on children sent to foster care or extended family, permanent declines in income, and loss of educational and employment opportunities; 67 percent of former prisoners in the survey were unemployed or underemployed five years after their release.

Funded by several grantmakers, including the Akonadi, Marguerite Casey, Compton, Ford, Open Society, and Overbrook foundations and the Andrus Family and Moriah funds, the report also found that women accounted for 83 percent of family members who were primarily responsible for court-related cases, while low-income women of color were disproportionately affected by the costs of having a family member in jail or prison. Poverty perpetuates the cycle of incarceration, the report argues, as the financial cost of incarceration — often compounded by the family's loss of public benefits including government-subsidized housing and food stamps — and the barriers to employment and economic mobility that the incarcerated individual faces upon release make it difficult to build or maintain economic stability, family relationships, and health. To interrupt the cycle, the report calls for reforming criminal justice policies, removing barriers to stability, and restoring educational and employment opportunities.

"Incarceration weakens the social fabric and disrupts the social ecology of entire communities through the way it disrupts families' economic stability," Azadeh Zohrabi, national campaigner for the Ella Baker Center, told the New York Times. "Often, it leaves it broken beyond repair."

"Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families." Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design Report 09/14/2015. Timothy Williams. "Report Details Economic Hardships for Inmate Families." New York Times 09/15/2015.