Last week, Adam Sewer published a great article at the American Prospect about the trend of making former prisoners literally pay for their own incarceration, with “user fees” being imposed as a condition of parole. It was a practice that I was unaware of, and one that I imagine many readers who do not have direct interactions with the prison system also did not know about:
Missouri defense attorney Justin Carver has seen it a million times. One of his clients, an 18-year-old parolee, was about to be sent back to prison because he was late paying restitution and “user fees” related to property-damage and peace-disturbance charges. The client showed up at court with $200, more than enough to pay off his $118 debt, in the hopes he could convince the judge to let him stay out and graduate from high school. The judge said he’d take the money, but Carver’s client would still have to spend 20 days in jail. Since he wouldn’t be able to graduate anyway, Carver’s client pocketed the $200 and spent two months in jail. Given that one Missouri county-prison administration estimated the cost per day of housing a prisoner at $64, it’s more than likely that stay cost the state several times the amount Carver’s client owed.
“If the taxpayers knew that was going on, they’d go bananas,” Carver says.
Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as optimistic as Carver. Personally, I know far too many people whose response to the above story would be a shrug and “Well, I guess he should have paid his fees on time.” Among many who would be outraged, the sense of anger and exasperation would come from the cost to the state — not the absurd and tragic fact that a young man was not able to graduate from high school over some property damage and $118. And I’d argue that’s really not a whole lot better than not being outraged at all.
It’s true that in a public policy sense, doing the right thing tends to cost less than doing the wrong thing. Providing universal health care would cost less than the waste and neglect of the current U.S. health system. Providing sustainable housing, mental health care, and addiction treatment would cost less than the current responses to either homelessness or drug use. And yes, it’s true that the right absolutely has obscured these truths, and their all too successful efforts do need to be combated. But unless we care about the underlying issues, we’re just going to keep finding ways to cut costs — or make it look like costs are being cut — without shifting our actual approaches to the problems at hand.
This creation of “user fees” for ex-prisoners is a perfect case in point. People are finally beginning to care about the cost of the prison industrial complex to the U.S. public. But since recidivism and humane treatment for offenders are still not the primary concerns, and the public still has a strong investment in punishment, the “solution” has simply been to find new and more inventive ways to punish offenders. And such punishments may take the form of “user fees” or cutting programs within prisons that make life more bearable and recidivism less likely.
In the recent Florida governor’s race, Republican candidate Rick Scott — now the governor-elect — pledged to cut prison costs by a billion dollars, mostly by reducing the salaries and benefits of prison officers, who responded with an ad campaign that accused Scott of wanting to release dangerous felons early. Neither side was willing to consider the one thing that might actually cut costs: reducing the number of people in prison. The dispute reflected a perilous dynamic for corrections reformers. State governors with recession-ravaged budgets are attempting to reduce prison costs without reducing their prison populations. They are reluctant to invest in solutions that make it look as though they’re “going easy” on people who have committed crimes, so programs to help the formerly incarcerated re-enter society have been given the short shrift in fiscally motivated prison-reform plans.
A 2010 survey published by the Pew Center on the States found that 61 percent of respondents supported sending fewer low-risk, nonviolent offenders to prison and that 75 percent favored reducing prison terms for such offenders if the ultimate goal was to save money, despite the fact that the sample skewed conservative. The results suggest Americans would be receptive to an effective re-entry program. Seventy-seven percent strongly agreed with the statement that “an effective probation and parole system would use new technologies to monitor where offenders are and what they are doing, require them to pass drug tests, and require they either keep a job or perform community service.”
Now, it’s certainly positive that U.S. citizens are increasingly interested in seeing non-violent offenders not spend time in prisons — it’s a start, at least. But I think that the travesty of effectively paying for one’s right to parole proves that basing incarceration policy solely off of the desire to save money is incredibly dangerous. Supporting less incarceration because of money rather than a desire for justice, improved lives, and safer communities is likely to result in nothing more than punitive structures that look and act an awful lot like prison, anyway. Indeed, looking at what kind of parole and probation system the public supports, one has to wonder what exactly the point of constant tracking and surveillance is if not a somewhat more lenient form of imprisonment, and what they expect and hope to happen when one tests positive for drugs or is unable to find or keep a job. I’m guessing that most respondents are relying on the threat and reality of prison to keep these individuals “in line.”
In other words, it seems that we, as the U.S. public, are increasingly open to alternatives to prison — but only so long as the prison system remains the backbone of our method of dealing with all undesirable behavior. The fact that we’re trying to force ex-offenders to pay for their own incarceration even though it probably costs significantly more than the alternative should be considered a problem, but it’s not the problem. The problem is that really, most of us are probably pretty alright with that. Because the point isn’t really so much about saving money, but proving to offenders and ex-offenders that they aren’t worth “our” money. The point is to force ex-prisoners to literally pay their way to freedom. The point is the same as the point of the entire prison system, at least from the general public’s point of view — punishment.
So I’m not sure that fighting the practice of “user fees” with information about how they’re actually costing more is the most effective method, either from a practical or social justice standpoint. It’s not particularly practical because saving money doesn’t really seem to be the goal of these initiatives — no matter what the official reasoning and surveys happen to say. The goal is to add punishment on top of punishment. And it’s not great social justice because focusing on the money completely eludes the conversation of how punishment is being wielded primarily against oppressed classes, furthering a cycle of harm, violence, imprisonment, and marginalization. It ignores that prison is designed to be oppressive, and forcing overwhelmingly already-oppressed (and poor) people to pay for the means of oppression against them is beyond unjust. Appealing to people’s pocketbooks instead of their senses of justice seems a lot easier and realistic, but it doesn’t question the system in which the prejudice and financial concerns of the privileged get to determine the worth and humanity of the oppressed.
The mainstream conversation needs to move away from a conversation about monetary costs — which we need to remember is far more frequently used against imprisoned populations than in favor of them — to one about recidivism, specifically why recidivism rates are so high and how to most effectively lower them. This seems like a far more effective and appropriate starting place for leading into conversations about why we are imprisoning so many non-violent offenders to begin with, where this desire for punishment comes from and whether it is either healthy or just, and how this connects to the way the prison system acts as a means of oppression for marginalized communities. Hopefully it would even eventually lead to conversations about punishment for violent offenders, and whether punishment is really the best way to prevent future harm (a topic I myself still struggle with deeply).
Centering the conversation around justice instead of money takes a lot more work and induces a lot more headaches, at least in the short term. But it’s the only way to manage conversations like ones about forcing ex-offenders to pay for their own incarceration effectively, in a way that doesn’t just play wack-a-mole with each symptom of a highly racist, classist, and all other kinds of -ist system one at a time.