The costs of going straight

For the last generation we've put criminal justice policy in the hands of legislators with one injunction: Hang 'em high. Words like "rehabilitation" and "gain time" were excised from corrections vocabulary as if they were Bolshevik propaganda. Punishments got tougher, fines stiffer, tolerance for mistakes became "zero." But there have been costs to this, both apparent and hidden. And now that states are facing crippling budget deficits, they are beginning to see that criminal law written solely to mete out punitive retribution is no longer affordable.

Our jails and prisons are stuffed with 2.3 million people. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the nonprofit advocacy group the Sentencing Project. To save bucks on all this human warehousing, states are taking some obvious steps to reduce the population. California has just revised its parole system to eliminate requirements that low-level offenders check in regularly.

The state expects fewer people will return to jail for missed meetings with a parole officer. But another byproduct is that ex-offenders with jobs won't have to figure out how to make meetings, leading to more stable employment.

This points up the hidden expense of our criminal justice system, which is how absurdly difficult it makes life for people trying to abide by the rules once they are released.

We purposely stack the odds against someone going from a public charge to a responsible societal contributor. And this myopic policy wrings tremendous costs from individuals, families, communities and ultimately entire states.

The extent of some of these obstacles is documented in a just-released report on Florida's "cash register justice" by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

The report details how the Florida Legislature has increasingly imposed user fees on offenders for the costs of the criminal justice system, burdening them with debt loads that make a successful re-entry a veritable pipe dream.

The report found that since 1996, criminal defendants have been slapped with more than 20 new categories of financial obligations, even as the state eliminated most exemptions for indigency.

The fees are imposed to recoup the cost of prosecution and defense, court costs, housing, food and medical care. Offenders are charged for their probation supervision, substance abuse treatment and their own electronic monitoring.

Tom Bakos, who runs a residential re-entry program in Gainesville, Fla., told the Brennan Center that about 80 percent of his clients are charged between $100 and $300 per month in financial obligations related to their interaction with the criminal justice system.

For people out of prison who usually qualify for some of the state's lowest-paid work — an average Florida prison inmate reads at a sixth-grade level — this can make subsistence impossible.

Florida then takes it further. When people can't keep up with their payment plans, depending upon the county, their driver's license may be suspended, which can lead to job loss or new offenses for driving on a suspended license. If they fail to show at a hearing on a missed payment — which will probably be scheduled for the middle of a workday — a warrant is issued for their arrest.

Florida also heaps late fees and collection fees on delinquent payments. In 2009, the Florida Legislature required that collection agents be used after 90 days, allowing a surcharge of up to 40 percent on the amount owed.

The state essentially invites recidivism by laying the groundwork for failure. Call it counterproductive, heartless or insane, any one fits.

Florida's court clerks know it. They expect only 9 percent of fees levied on felons to be collected.

As states grapple with ways to dig out of their budget holes, they should address the hidden costs as well as the apparent costs encumbering their states. By ending these blood-from-a-stone corrections policies, more people would leave prison with the real possibility of putting the past behind them. This in turn would reduce recidivism and make more taxpayers out of tax burdens. Long-range thinking, anyone?

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