Another kind of toxic debt

By Michelle Chen Mar 24, 2009

Unprecedented outrage over the Wall Street bailout has stoked accusations of criminality, both real and figurative, and calls for retributive justice. Incidentally, amid rising populist anger at white-collar depravity, some more conventional targets for public disdain are looking for a little more humanity from the criminal justice system. Lawmakers in Washington State are weighing legislation to lift economic barriers to voting rights for people with felony convictions. Current law mandates that ex-felons, even after serving their time, must pay back all fines, restitution and court fees before they regain the right to vote. The proposed bill, now pending Senate approval, would eliminate the monetary obligations as a condition for re-enfranchisement, which would ease access to the ballot box for ex-offenders saddled with crippling debt. Across the country, a slew of restrictions impede or bar ex-felons from exercising the right to vote. Voting limitations range from a cumbersome bureaucratic process for restoring eligibility, to an outright lifetime ban. According to the Sentencing Project, despite significant reforms in many states, about 5.3 million people nationwide are effectively disenfranchised by their felony records, resulting in 13 percent of Black men being deprived of their right to vote. Financial penalties levied by courts and corrections systems could pose devastating obstacles to the reintegration and rehabilitation of returning former prisoners and parolees. In a new study on fees imposed on criminal justice-involved individuals in Maryland, the Brennan Center for Justice argues that the charges serve no purpose other than generating revenue at the expense of the convicted:

They are imposed on a largely indigent population, rather than on the general tax-paying populace. And, they are imposed without regard to their impact on the ability of persons convicted of a crime to reenter society after completing court-mandated punishment. The parole supervision fee in Maryland—a monthly obligation of $40 that totals of hundreds of dollars over the course of the parole term—is just such a charge…. …persons leaving prison face significant hurdles in obtaining employment, housing and other social services. Many individuals also face financial burdens from staggering child support arrears, drug and alcohol testing fees, and, in some cases, fees for participation in drug treatment and other programs that are conditions of their parole. In short, the parolees from whom the state seeks to subsidize its coffers are often struggling to get by at the most basic levels.

Apparently, for the political establishment, crime does pay. But for many emerging from the criminal justice system and trying to eke out an honest living, their debt to society adds up to an eternal ball and chain. Image: "Vote," Anthony Papa