Why Do People Leave Prison with So Much Debt?

Stacks of Coins

This is the second entry in a series of posts highlighting GCO’s report, A High Price to Pay: Recommendations for Minimizing Debt’s Role in Driving Recidivism Rates. The first entry provided an overview of the report, as well as a recent update to one of the recommendations.

Returning citizens often face a mountain of debt upon leaving prison that makes it more difficult to successfully reenter society. Some of this debt may have existed prior to incarceration – such as consumer debt and child support – while much of it arises as a direct result of a criminal conviction, and is made much worse by subsequent incarceration and unemployment. Studies have shown average debt amounts in certain jurisdictions to be as high as $20,000 in child support arrears[i] and between $500 and $2,000 in offense-related debt.[ii] This onerous amount of debt, combined with the lack of opportunity to earn or save money while in prison, cause many offenders to reenter society with little hope of being able to repay what they owe.

Consumer Debt

It is common for people who are incarcerated to carry some level of consumer debt into prison, whether it is from outstanding mortgages, car loans, school loans, or credit cards.[iii] Missed payments on these mortgages, loans, and bills result in back interest, fees, and fines accumulating over the course of a person’s incarceration. The end result can be the offender accumulating an unmanageable amount of debt by the time he or she is released, leading him or her to file for bankruptcy.[iv]

Child Support

Child support typically comprises the largest debt returning citizens owe,[v] as non-custodial parents who are unable to modify their orders during incarceration can owe tens of thousands of dollars in arrears by the time they are released.[vi]

One study examining Massachusetts’ inmates and parolees revealed that non-custodial parents entering prison owed an average of $10,543 in unpaid child support and were likely to generate an additional $10,000 in arrears by the time they were released.[vii] More startlingly, one-fifth of the state inmates were estimated to generate arrears balances in excess of $30,000 while in prison.[viii] Another study of 350 parolees in Colorado demonstrated that they had an average balance of $16,651 in arrears.[ix]

Many returning citizens in Georgia are likely to be impacted by child support debt, as 60 percent of offenders in Georgia self-report having one or more children upon entering prison.[x] Accepting the circumstances of the incarcerated, some states allow offenders to modify their child support while in prison to avoid the accrual of arrears. However, Georgia offenders are prohibited from modifying their arrears while incarcerated, as the state deems incarceration to be a form of “voluntary unemployment.”[xi] As such, there is no mechanism for indigent offenders in Georgia to avoid accruing child support debt.

Once child support arrears have accrued, federal law requires non-custodial parents to pay the full amount owed to custodial parents, even if modification of orders is granted upon release from prison.[xii] However, federal law does permit arrears owed to the state to be forgiven retroactively. Child support arrears become owed to the state when the Department of Human Resources supplies Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to custodial parents who are not receiving requisite child support payments from non-custodial parents. Once funds are distributed, the non-custodial parent becomes obligated to repay the state for supplying the amount of assistance he or she was originally responsible for paying the custodial parent.[xiii]


Another source of debt which many returning citizens owe upon reentry is payment of restitution to victims. The amount of restitution owed by offenders usually ranges from several hundreds of dollars to several thousands of dollars, depending on the offense.[xiv] Restitution provides a way for offenders to pay for financial loss and other damages suffered by victims including lost property, medical expenses, costs of counseling, funeral and burial expenses, and lost wages.[xv] It also serves as a way for the offender and the state to demonstrate that they recognize the harm that the victim suffered and the offender’s obligation to make amends.[xvi] One study conducted in Pennsylvania found that paying restitution is related to lower recidivism.[xvii] As such, it is an important obligation for returning citizens to pay.

However, problems occur when a person’s financial status and earning capacity is not considered in forming restitution orders.[xviii] This can result in unrealistic terms of repayment being formed, which, combined with other court-imposed financial obligations, create a financial burden for the returning citizen and may discourage him or her from repaying anything at all.[xix] When this situation happens, it leaves victims without compensation for financial loss or damages and diminishes their confidence in the criminal justice system.

In Georgia, the Crime Victims Restitution Act of 2005 mandates that offenders make restitution payments to victims while under parole supervision.[xx] The court determines the amount of restitution and manner of paying it during sentencing, and parole officers are responsible for facilitating and monitoring payment compliance once the offender is in the community. Parolees must begin paying restitution upon release and are required to pay a minimum of $30 per month. [1],[xxi]

Fees, Fines, and Surcharges

A third source of debt that encumbers returning citizens is fees, fines, and surcharges that arise as a direct result of a criminal conviction.

Fees are amounts charged to offenders in exchange for the services provided by courts, probation departments, parole supervision, and other agencies.[xxii] For example, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles collects a monthly supervision fee of $30 from every parolee with a supervision period of three months or longer. [2],[xxiii]

Fines imposed by the court are intended to punish offenders and deter others from committing such crimes.[xxiv] The amount of the fine varies based on the person’s charge and can be mandatory or discretionary.[xxv] A fine for a third DUI offense in Georgia, for instance, can be as high as $5,000.[xxvi]

Finally, surcharges are add-on amounts often unrelated to the crime but used to generate revenue for criminal justice agencies.[xxvii] Revenue is designated toward such things as retirement funds for sheriffs and peace officers, law enforcement facilities and training, indigent defense programs, and education and treatment programs.[xxviii] While small in isolation, surcharges can total hundreds and even thousands of dollars.[xxix]

Georgia began collecting surcharges in 1950 when the legislature passed a statute requiring a deduction to be taken from every criminal fine to support the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund. By 2001, the number of court-imposed surcharges had risen to 21 to support nine state programs, five local programs, and the State General Fund.[xxx] Surcharges range from $0.50 per case to 50 percent of the total fine amount.[xxxi]

Inability to Earn or Save Money in Prison

A fourth reason returning citizens in Georgia have difficulty repaying debts upon release is that they do not have the ability to earn money for their work performed while incarcerated.[xxxii] As one of only three states that do not pay inmates for work,[3][xxxiii] Georgia bars those who are indigent from being able to meet current obligations, pay-down debt, or save for their inevitable reentry while in prison. This policy removes a strong incentive for them to work and develop skills and experience that will be helpful in obtaining a job upon release.


Without having a realistic plan and payment options to pay-off all of this debt, people returning from prison are less likely to pay anything at all, more likely to engage in the underground economy to avoid wage garnishment, and more likely to make bad decisions that may result in re-incarceration. The consequences of debt can be detrimental for returning citizens.



[1] Payment is required upon release for parolees serving 90 days or more under parole supervision.

[2] Parolees serving for violent offenses pay a monthly victim compensation fee of $30 in lieu of the supervision fee.

[3] Georgia inmates who participate in the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) and inmates who are placed in a transitional center are the exception, as they do have a chance to earn money while incarcerated. However, PIECP is limited to two prisons – though the state has plans to expand it to three to five more prisons – and there are only 13 transitional centers across the state serving 2,674 of 53,558 inmates . The other two states who do not pay inmates for work are Arkansas and Texas.



Some of the citations listed below are abbreviated. To view the full citation, see the “Notes” section in our report, A High Price to Pay.

[i] Nancy Thoennes, Child Support Profile: Massachusetts Incarcerated and Paroled Parents, Center for Policy Research, May 2002, 26, http://cntrpolres.qwestoffice.net/reports/profile%20of%20CS%20among%20incarcerated%20&%20paroled%20parents.pdf.

[ii] Carl Reynolds et al., A Framework to Improve How Fines, Fees, Restitution, and Child Support are Assessed and Collected from People Convicted of Crimes, Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Texas Office of Court Administration, Interim Report, March 2, 2009, 8, http://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/2009-CSG-TXOCA-report.pdf.

[iii] Erica Sandberg, “Ex-offenders face big debt challenges after prison,” CreditCards.com, August 30, 2010, accessed May 8, 2014, para. 7, http://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/ex-offenders-felons-prisoners-jail-in-debt-1264.php.

[iv] Connie Prater, “How to prepare financially for time in prison,” CreditCards.com, October 15, 2010, accessed March 26, 2014, para. 7, http://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/how-to-prepare-inmate-financially-jail-prison-1265.php.

[v] Carl Reynolds et al., A Framework to Improve, 10.

[vi] Nancy Thoennes, Child Support Profile, 18.

[vii] Ibid., 26.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Jessica Pearson, “Building Debt While Doing Time: Child Support and Incarceration,” Judge’s Journal 43 (2004): 7; Jessica Pearson and Lanae Davis, Serving Parents Who Leave Prison: Final Report on the Work and Family Center, Center for Policy Research, 2001, ii, http://www.hawaii.edu/hivandaids/Serving%20Parents%20Who%20Leave%20Prison.pdf.

[x] Georgia Department of Corrections, Inmate Statistical Profile, 8.

[xi] Office of Child Support Enforcement, “Project to Avoid Increasing Delinquencies: ’Voluntary Unemployment,’ Imputed Income, and Modification Laws and Policies for Incarcerated Noncustodial Parents,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, July 2012, 4, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/programs/css/paid_no_4_companion.pdf; See O.C.G.A. § 19-6-15(j).

[xii] Jessica Pearson, “Building Debt,” 5.

[xiii] Rachel L. McLean and Michael D. Thompson, Repaying Debts, Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2007, 26, http://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/repaying_debts_full_report-2.pdf.

[xiv] Judge Brian Amero, Henry County Superior Court, telephone conversation with author, May 29, 2014.

[xv] National Center for Victims of Crime, “Restitution Procedures,” in Promising Practices and Strategies for Victim Services in Corrections, 1997, http://www.victimsofcrime.org/library/publications/archive/promising-practices-and-strategies-for-victim-services-in-corrections; National Center for Victims of Crime, Making Restitution Real: Five Case Studies on Improving Restitution Collection, 2011, 3, 4, http://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/2011-Natl-Center-for-Victims-of-Crime-report.pdf.

[xvi] National Center for Victims of Crime, Making Restitution Real, 4.

[xvii] R. Barry Ruback, Restitution in Pennsylvania: A Multimethod Investigation, Submitted to Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Final Grant Report, August 2002, 9, 98, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Archive/221282NCJRS.pdf.

[xviii] National Institute of Justice, “Restitution,” Archived material that is the product of five regional symposia held on restorative justice between June 1997 and January 1998, accessed April 9, 2014, para. 5, http://nij.gov/topics/courts/restorative-justice/promising-practices/Pages/restitution.aspx.

[xix] Carl Reynolds et al., A Framework to Improve, 1.

[xx] Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, “Restitution,” accessed April 10, 2014, http://pap.georgia.gov/restitution.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Rachel L. McLean and Michael D. Thompson, Repaying Debts, 2; Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, “Supervision & Victim Fees,” accessed April 10, 2014, http://pap.georgia.gov/supervision-victim-fees.

[xxiii] Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, “Supervision & Victim Fees,” accessed May 12, 2014, http://pap.georgia.gov/supervision-victim-fees.

[xxiv] Paul Peterson, “Supervision Fees: State Policies and Practices,” Federal Probation 76 (2012): para. 2, http://www.uscourts.gov/uscourts/FederalCourts/PPS/Fedprob/2012-06/supervision.html.

[xxv] Rachel L. McLean and Michael D. Thompson, Repaying Debts, 2.

[xxvi] O.C.G.A. § 40-6-391.

[xxvii] Rachel L. McLean and Michael D. Thompson, Repaying Debts, 2.

[xxviii] Administrative Office of the Courts, Court Fees in Georgia – Laws and Information, Court Business and Process Improvement Program, October 2004, 5, http://www.georgiacourts.org/aoc/publications/courtfeesbook10_2004.pdf.

[xxix] Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller, Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry, Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law, 2010, 1, http://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/Fees%20and%20Fines%20FINAL.pdf.

[xxx] Russell W. Hinton, “Court Fees,” Department of Audits and Accounts, Performance Audit Operations Division, October 2001, 1. This executive summary can be found in the following report: Administrative Office of the Courts of Georgia, Municipal Court Fee Study, November 2003, Appendix A-1, http://www.georgiacourts.org/aoc/publications/municipal_court.pdf.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Adam Crisp, “Georgia inmates strike in fight for pay,” timesfreepress.com, December 14, 2010, accessed May 20, 2014, http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2010/dec/14/georgia-inmates-strike-in-fight-for-pay/?local.

[xxxiii] Cindy Upton and Sarah Harp, Cost of Incarcerating Adult Felons, Kentucky Legislative Research Commission, Program Review and Investigations Committee, Research Report No. 373, 45, http://www.lrc.ky.gov/lrcpubs/RR373.pdf; A.J. Sabree, Strategic Planning and Implementation Consultant for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, email message to author, June 5, 2014; Peter Wagner, “Section III: The Prison Economy,” in The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industry, Western Prison Project and the Prison Policy Initiative, April 2003, 130-131, http://www.prisonpolicy.org/prisonindex/prisonlabor.html; Adam Crisp, “Georgia inmates strike in fight for pay,” timesfreepress.com, December 14, 2010, http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2010/dec/14/georgia-inmates-strike-in-fight-for-pay/?local.