FOR FORMER PRISONERS, making the transition back to society can be extremely difficult. Many formerly incarcerated people face multiple barriers to re-entry, including limited access to certain types of employment; physical and mental health conditions that sometimes go untreated; and addictions to drugs and alcohol. After their release, many former prisoners also face steep financial obligations that make it difficult to reestablish a normal life.  

A new report being released today (Jan. 13) explores the financial challenges facing recently released prisoners, and offers a number of recommendations designed to address them. 

Co-authored by criminal justice experts Karin D. Martin, Sandra Susan Smith and Wendy Still under the auspices of Harvard Kennedy School's Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the report identifies five types of criminal justice financial obligations (CJFOs): fines and forfeiture of property, both intended as punishment; costs and fees, including but not limited to court costs and supervision fees; and restitution, a financial payout to specific victims or a general fund designated for them, intended to compensate victims for the losses they have suffered. The authors consider the differences between restitution and other types of CJFOs, given restitution’s intended function. They conclude by offering alternative models for the fair and effective fulfillment of all types of CJFOs.

The authors recommend several changes to the current model, including: adjusting CJFOs based on individuals’ ability to pay; implementing additional safeguards to avoid entrapment in a cycle of poverty; and using money collected from CJFOs to fund direct rehabilitation services. They also propose a second set of reforms to separate the criminal justice system from its “growing reliance on CJFOs for their own operations and maintenance.” In order to promote public safety, the authors propose the creation of an independent commission to examine the causes and consequences of CJFOs, and a move away from requiring criminal justice officers to collect debts.

“Shackled to Debt: Criminal Justice Financial Obligations and the Barriers to Re-entry They Create” (pdf) is published as part of the New Thinking in Community Corrections series resulting from the Executive Session on Community Corrections (2013-2016) at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). The report will be released at an event today (Jan. 13) in St. Louis Missouri.  

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