Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday September 15th, 2015, 3:22pm

National Report Details 'True Cost' Of Incarceration On Families

A national report released Tuesday aims to shed light on the hidden impacts mass incarceration has on families and their economic stability, health and well-being.

Over 20 community-based organizations from across the country, including the Chicago-based Workers Center for Racial Justice (WCRJ), spent more than a year developing the report, which is based on over 1,100 surveys of formerly incarcerated people, families with incarcerated loved ones and employers.

"Everyone knows about the $80 billion that our cities and states and the federal government (spend) locking people up, but what is not known is the amount of money that we incur when ourselves and loved ones get locked up," WCRJ's Executive Director DeAngelo Bester said at a Tuesday press conference in Chicago.

The report, spearheaded by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together and Research Action Design, showed that 48 percent of surveyed families were saddled with costs associated with a conviction that they could not afford, and a majority of formerly incarcerated individuals, 67 percent, were unemployed or underemployed five years after their release.

Chicagoan Andrew Peel, 27, spoke to the barriers formerly incarcerated people face when trying to find a job.

Peel was charged with aggravated battery at age 17 and later accepted a plea deal that involved him completing two years of probation.

"I had a hard time getting a job," he said. "I get an interview. I get a call back. It's like, 'Oh we just have to check your background check.' That comes and you never get that call back."

"Seven years later," he added. "I'm just now getting an actual job."

Among other financial-related findings, the report showed that survey respondents incurred an average of $13,607 in debt for court-related fines and fees. And more than one in three families had to go into debt to pay for the costs of calling and visiting their incarnated loved ones.

"In 63 percent of cases, family members on the outside were primarily responsible for court-related costs associated with conviction," the report added. "Of the family members primarily responsible for these costs, 83 percent were women."

There are over 2.4 million people incarcerated in the nation's jails and prisons, according to the report. And over half of those who enter the U.S. criminal justice system have annual incomes at or below the poverty line. 

The report notes that "many families lose income when a family member is removed from household wage earning and struggle to meet basic needs while paying fees, supporting their loved one financially and bearing the costs of keeping in touch."

Among the families surveyed, 65 percent with an incarcerated member said they could not make ends meet.

Marilyn Pagan-Banks, executive director of A Just Harvest, weighed in on the impacts of incarceration on women.

"It's like they're locked up with their companions," she said. "And I know it's not just men who are in prison, but it is a higher percentage. And so the families are like in prison as well. They can't get out of poverty. They can't necessarily begin to lift their family to a place where they can be self-sustaining." 

The report also touched on how incarceration impacts people's mental and physical health.

Of those surveyed, one in every two formerly incarcerated people and one in every two family members reported experiencing negative health impacts associated with their loved one's incarceration, including post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares, depression and anxiety, the report reads.

A number policy changes are recommended in the report around restructuring sentences to "focus more on accountability, safety and healing of all individuals" rather than punishment as well as removing barriers to housing, employment and public assistance for formerly incarcerated people. Also, the savings from criminal justice reforms should be reinvested in job training and other services that help formerly incarcerated people, the report recommends.

Bester said "banning the box" on job applications is a basic step that more states should take to reduce employment barriers for formerly incarcerated people. Under ban-the-box legislation, which is in effect in Illinois and 17 other states, employers have to evaluate a job applicant's skills before asking about criminal history.

Reforms to prison phone rates are also needed, Bester said.

"It makes no sense for our families to be charged five, six, seven dollars a minute for phone calls," he stressed. "The people who are locked up ... they're not making any money. If they're working a job, it's 25 to 30 cents an hour, and usually the families of those people aren't rich themselves. So that's an undue burden on families."

Improvements could also be made to prisoner and prison placement so that incarcerated people are located closer to where their families live, the report says.

"Having to travel three, four hours just to see a loved one is, again, it's an undue burden," Bester said. "For low-income families who don't have access to a car, reliable transportation, it's next to impossible."

The "Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families" report can be found online at WhoPaysReport.org.

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