Americans are infatuated with retributive justice. Our cultural attitudes towards crime and punishment are reflected by a media saturated with images of violence, the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and our metaphorical vice-grip on using state-sanctioned executions as a form of punishment. What many people do not know is the ways in which our prison system continues to arrest people who have served their time in custody.
Incarcerated people and their families are frequently pressed for cash both during and after incarceration. Contrary to our stereotypes surrounding people who have been or are incarcerated, 41 states in the US allow for people to be charged for room and board while they are incarcerated. Additionally, 43 states and the District of Columbia allow defendants to be charged for a public defender – something every person is Constitutionally guaranteed; 44 states can bill for probation services and every state but Hawaii and D.C. charge for mandatory location monitoring after a defendant’s release.
In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia courts were not allowed to revoke a person’s probation simply because they lacked the resources to pay for fines or restitution. The crux of this decision’s dysfunction is rooted in the court having to decide if a “petitioner has [made] bona fide efforts to seek employment or borrow money to pay”. There are numerous accounts of people who spent time in jail for things like catching fish out of season, stealing a $2 can of beer, or entering an abandoned building. If you’ve read our post “Privatization and How it Compromises Civil Liberties”, it will come of little surprise to you that over 1,000 courts in the US delegate their work to for-profit probation companies, who are able to send people with unpaid accounts to jail for things as simple as moving violations or a lack of insurance – only perpetuating the cyclical nature of our criminal justice system.
As if having to pay for being incarcerated wasn’t enough, people have distinct and widespread difficulty finding employment after their release. An estimated 60% to 75% of people who exit incarceration are still unemployed a year after their release date. Those who do find work will find their wages are, on average, 20% smaller than what they were used to before incarceration. Why is this the case? Incarceration records become relevant to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in two contexts:
In other words, it is technically illegal to discriminate against people for having a criminal history. It’s also perfectly legal for potential employers to ask about convictions on an application. When HR recruiters are looking for ways to cull a stack of applications for one job, criminal convictions are an easy way to eliminate potential employees. All employers are required to do when assessing an applicant is “take into account the nature of the job sought, the type of conviction, and how long it has been since the conviction. In addition, the employer should consider any relevant information submitted by the applicant, such as evidence of rehabilitation or past work experience”.
It does not take much imagination to think about the ways that exiting prison or jail with few employment prospects and hundreds or thousands of dollars of debt would inhibit a person from being successful – regardless of the level of rehabilitation that happened during their incarceration. That being said, some localities have decided to address the disparities faced by people exiting their incarceration with a couple of best practices:
If you would like to learn more about your rights or believe that you have been discriminated against please visit the Civil Rights Justice Center located at 2150 N. 107th Street in Seattle Washington or visit our website at civilrightsjusticecenter.com