Incarceration: An Invisible Tax On The Poor?


Adding a heavy financial burden to people living in poverty, the states and the federal government exact large sums from the families and friends of incarcerated individuals through fees on prison services, such as money transfers and telephone calls, according to an article in the journal Perspectives on Politics, published by the American Political Science Association. In “Taxing the Poor: Incarceration, Poverty Governance, and the Seizure of Family Resources,” authors Mary Fainsod Katzenstein and Maureen R. Waller argue that the justice system effectively is withdrawing resources from poor families to fund its own operations—particularly prisons.

“Incarcerated individuals often turn to families for co-pay charges for medical services, commissary purchases, and telephone calls,” the authors write. “After prison, the costs of these financial obligations carry over and new costs are imposed for parole and probation that are rarely affordable without family financial intervention. Absent family financial support, the debt-owing individual is subject to a string of punishments—from further interest levies, loss of motor vehicle or other licenses, garnishment to (re)incarceration, itself.”

The increase in financial charges over the last few decades have been driven by a number of factors, including added fiscal burdens on state and local governments, and by government's ability to more effectively track addresses and enforce collections thanks to technology. In addition to fees levied on prison services, families of incarcerated individuals often end up paying other fines after their loved one is released, including parole fees, probation fees and delinquent child support payments.

The authors describe this form of taxation “poverty governance.” Read their analysis here.

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