How Ex-Inmates’ Debts Hamper Reentering Society

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When David Silva returned in 2006 from serving 38 months in a New Jersey prison for offenses related to his substance abuse, he faced more than $35,000 in debt to the government for his prosecutions and stints in prison. He later filed for bankruptcy. This path from prison to bankruptcy is all too common, write Larry Schwartztol of Harvard Law School and Abby Shafroth of the National Consumer Law Center for Slate. As policymakers rethink mass incarceration, the excessive costs imposed on criminal defendants remain roadblocks to people seeking to transition back to their communities. Even a decade after Silva left prison, the burden imposed by criminal justice debts lingers. His efforts to move out of his old neighborhood to a community with lower crime rates was stymied for years by landlords who balked at his credit report. When he could finally obtain a car loan, he paid an inordinately high interest rate due to his debts.

Silva’s experience highlights an increasingly fundamental fact about encounters with the criminal justice system: long after a formal sentence ends, the punishment continues, say Schwartztol and Shafroth. As his story shows, a criminal sentence is no longer a singular penalty pronounced by a judge as a proportionate response to a criminal conviction. These convictions often spark a cascade of economic consequences that persist for years after the formal sentence is over and threaten a person’s ability to re-enter society successfully and self-sufficiently. These debts force individuals to navigate a maze of onerous systems and actors—criminal courts and prisons, but also private debt collectors, DMVs, credit reporting companies, and bankruptcy courts.

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