For many prisoners reentering society, debts and the inability to save money while in prison create serious obstacles to a successful transition. This debt usually comes in the form of child support arrears, restitution, and various court fines and fees that result from their conviction.
Georgia, offenders are released from prison with only $25, a change of clothes, and a bus ticket. Meanwhile, they may likely carry tens of thousands of dollars in debt as well as the mark of a criminal record, making their prospects of securing a job and housing very difficult.
Because of this fact, offenders usually struggle to provide for their own basic needs upon release, much less service the debt they have incurred as a result of their felony. These offenders transition from a place where all their basic needs were provided by the state, to a situation where their subsistence depends largely upon their ability to get a job. Having been out of the job market for potentially several years, simply affording rent payments, buying food and clothing, and covering transportation expenses can be remarkably difficult. Often additional liabilities, such as child support payments, make circumstances even more difficult, leaving an offender little to no money to spare for the repayment of debts.
Still the demand placed upon offenders to repay their debts and obligations is high, and the penalty for not complying can be stiff. A person under parole supervision in Georgia can be revoked and re-incarcerated for failure to pay child support, restitution, or parole supervision costs.[i] An offender may not be intentionally avoiding paying these costs, but simply not have the means to do so – especially when they have spent the last several years in prison with no means of earning income.
As a result, an inordinate amount of debt can discourage offenders from making current payments (i.e. child support), encourage them to seek illegitimate sources of income, or lead them to abscond.[ii] These responses are harmful for all stakeholders in the community, as unpaid debt and obligations leave children and mothers without financial support, victims lacking financial compensation, and taxpayers burdened with the cost of debt collection, legal fees, and re-incarceration. Moreover, such responses inhibit offenders’ rehabilitation by preventing them from amending past actions and accepting current roles and responsibilities within their families and communities.
It is important for the state to consider how various debts and obligations present unique barriers for offenders reentering society, and to work where feasible to remove those that are unnecessarily punitive. In this way, the state could encourage offenders to meet current obligations and develop a realistic plan for repaying what is owed.
[i] Jake Arbes, “How Parole Works in Georgia,” Jake Arbes Attorney at Law, accessed March 3, 2014, http://www.arbeslaw.com/how-parole-works.html.
[ii] Vicki Teretsky, Staying in Jobs and Out of the Underground: Child Support Policies that Encourage Legitimate Work, CLASP Policy Brief, March 2007.