Key Findings

Who Pays? reveals that the costs of incarceration run deeper than budget line items and extend far beyond the sentences served. Whether behind bars or returning home, people who have experienced incarceration are a part of families – whether chosen or blood related – to whom them contribute and by whom they are supported. Families pay both the apparent and hidden costs while their loved ones serve out sentences and for a long time after. Our research found that families struggle to afford exorbitant financial costs while also dealing with intense emotional and physical trauma when a loved one is taken away.

Who Pays? Key Findings:

People with convictions are saddled with copious fees, fines, and debt at the same time that their economic opportunities are diminished, resulting in a lack of economic stability and mobility.

Forty-eight percent of families in our survey overall were unable to afford the costs associated with a conviction, while among poor families (making less than $15,000 per year), 58% were unable to afford these costs. Sixty-seven percent of respondents remained either unemployed or underemployed five years after release.

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. Nearly 2 in 3 families (65%) with an incarcerated member were unable to meet their family’s basic needs. Forty-nine percent struggled with meeting basic food needs and 48% had trouble meeting basic housing needs because of the financial costs of having an incarcerated loved one.

Despite their often-limited resources, families are the primary resource for housing, employment, and health needs of their formerly incarcerated loved ones, filling the gaps left by diminishing budgets for reentry services. Two-thirds (67%) of respondents’ families helped them find housing. Nearly 1 in 5 families (18%) involved in our survey faced eviction, were denied housing, or did not qualify for public housing once their formerly incarcerated family member returned. Reentry programs, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations combined did not provide housing and other support at the levels that families did.

Incarceration damages familial relationships and stability by separating people from their support systems, disrupting continuity of families, and causing lifelong health impacts that impede families from thriving. The high cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated family members led more than one in three families (34%) into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone. Family members who were not able to talk or visit with their loved ones regularly were much more likely to report experiencing negative health impacts related to a family member’s incarceration.

The stigma, isolation, and trauma associated with incarceration have direct impacts across families and communities. Of the people surveyed, about one in every two formerly incarcerated persons and one in every two family members experienced negative health impacts related to their own or a loved one’s incarceration. Families, including their incarcerated loved ones, frequently reported symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, nightmares, hopelessness, depression, and anxiety. Yet families have little institutional support for healing this trauma and becoming emotionally and financially stable during and post incarceration.

Women bear the brunt of the costs—both financial and emotional—of their loved one’s incarceration. In 63% of cases, family members on the outside were primarily responsible for court-related costs associated with conviction. Of the family members primarily responsible for these costs, 83% were women.

In addition, families incur large sums of debt due to their experience with incarceration. Across respondents of all income brackets, the average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees alone was $13,607, almost one year’s entire annual income for respondents who earn less than $15,000 per year.

Infographics designs by Micah Bazant