At $249 a day, jail stints leave ex-cons deep in debt

HARTFORD, Connecticut — Two decades after her release from prison, Teresa Beatty feels she is still being punished.

When her mother died two years ago, the state of Connecticut put a lien on the Stamford home that she and her siblings inherited. He said she owed $83,762 to cover the cost of her 2½ years in prison for drug-related crimes.

Now she fears she will have to sell her 51-year-old home, where she lives with two adult children, a grandchild and her disabled brother.

“I’m about to be homeless,” said Beatty, 58, who in March became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging state law that charges prisoners $249 a day for the cost of their incarceration. “I just don’t think it’s fair, because I feel like I’ve already paid my debt to society. I just don’t think it’s fair for me to pay twice.

All but two states have so-called “paid to stay” laws that require prisoners to pay for their time behind bars, although not all states prosecute people for money. Proponents say the collections are a legitimate way for states to recoup millions of taxpayer dollars spent on jails and prisons.

Critics say it is an unfair second sentence that hinders rehabilitation by putting former inmates in debt for life. Efforts are underway in some places to reduce or eliminate these policies.

Two states – Illinois and New Hampshire – have repealed their laws since 2019.

Connecticut also revised its law this year, keeping it in place only for the most serious crimes, such as murder, and exempting prisoners from paying the first $50,000 of their incarceration costs.

Under the revised law, about 98% of Connecticut inmates no longer have to pay the costs of their incarceration after release, said state Rep. Steve Staffrom, a Bridgeport Democrat and sponsor of the Connecticut legislation. repeal.

The state, however, retained its ability to collect some prison debts that were already on the books before the law changed. It’s unclear whether the change in the law, brought about after Beatty’s lawsuit, will be enough to keep her in her home. This will be decided in court.

His lawyers have asked a federal judge to stop the state from applying the law against anyone, saying it remains unfair even after the amendments.

Beatty admits she was guilty of selling and possessing drugs, but says no one told her when she went to jail that every day behind bars would cost her more than a night in a good hotel.

“It brings you back to despair,” said Beatty, who has had other run-ins with the law over drug possession since being released from prison but also became a certified nursing assistant. “That’s where I feel like I’m at. I feel hopeless. Where am I going? All this work and I feel like I did it in vain.

Pay-for-stay laws were implemented in many areas during the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s, said Brittany Friedman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Southern California who conducts a practice study. .

As the prison population grew, Friedman said, policymakers wondered how to pay for incarceration costs. “So instead of raising taxes, the solution was to shift the burden of costs from the state and taxpayers onto the incarcerated.”

Laws vary from state to state. Many, like Connecticut, only sue inmates for the cost of incarceration if they make money after they get out of jail. A few, like North Carolina, have laws on the books but almost never use them, Friedman said.

Connecticut’s partial repeal went into effect July 1. The state is expected to collect about $5.5 million less per year from former prisoners because of this change.

State Sen. John Kissel, the top Republican on the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said he opposes the repeal passed by the Democratic majority, but could support reforms such as allowing inmates to repay their debts in installments.

Kissel said that while Beatty’s situation is heartbreaking, “everyone has issues.”

“The policy is to make it clear that your incarceration costs money,” he said. “Taxpayers have paid the bill. They did nothing wrong. And knowing that one must regularly repay the state a reasonable sum is not a bad policy.

Connecticut used to collect prison debt by attaching an automatic lien to each inmate, claiming half of any financial windfall they might receive up to 20 years after their release from prison, Dan Barrett said, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. . This included things like insurance settlements, inheritances and lottery winnings.

The state has even collected money awarded to inmates in lawsuits for alleged abuse by prison guards.

Former Connecticut inmate Fred Hodges, who served more than 17 years in prison for killing a man while trying to retrieve his son’s stolen bike, has been awarded $21,000 after his car was wrecked in a traffic accident in 2009. The state claimed half of it, he said. After paying his attorney, he was left with about $3,000.

“I have seven grandchildren and the money could have helped them. It could have helped me,” said Hodges, who works for a nonprofit that helps other inmates reintegrate into society. “You’d be surprised what effect it can have on you psychologically when they tell you you owe them $249 a day. I was locked up for 17 and a half years. At $249 a day, how are you going to get by?”

Beatty’s lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, argues that the paid foreclosures violate the Constitution’s excessive fines clause.

Da’ee McKnight, who works with Hodges as coordinator of an organization called Family ReEntry, said the state took an insurance settlement from him, even though he had served most of his sentence before the law is enacted.

“Here I’m being penalized for something that I wasn’t even told about when I was sentenced because it didn’t even exist,” he said.

————

Associated Press writer Dave Collins contributed to this report.

Comments are closed.