Minimizing Debt and Promoting Successful Reentry

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This is the final entry in a series of posts highlighting GCO’s report, A High Price to Pay: Recommendations for Minimizing Debt’s Role in Driving Recidivism Rates. The first entry provided an overview of the report, the second entry laid out causes of debt for people reentering society from prison, and the third entry details the consequences of debt for returning citizens .This final post summarizes what has been said so far and outlines recommendations for the state to implement.

It is in the state’s interest and in the interest of justice for returning citizens[1] to pay debts and obligations owed to family members, victims, courts, and criminal justice agencies. Children need financial support from parents who have been incarcerated, victims ought to receive just compensation for losses and damages they have suffered, and courts and criminal justice agencies should be reimbursed for services that they provide. Nonetheless, for many people reentering society after a period of incarceration, debts and the inability to earn money while in prison create serious obstacles to a successful transition.

It is not uncommon for returning citizens to leave prison owing tens of thousands of dollars in child support arrears, restitution, court fines, fees, and surcharges to criminal justice agencies. Unrealistic terms for repaying these debts can discourage them from paying anything at all and encourages returning citizens to engage in the illegal, underground economy as a means of earning an income. Such actions result in probation or parole violations and may result in re-incarceration, the ultimate measure of recidivism.

Enforcing the repayment of debts and obligations without considering the needs and financial circumstances of returning citizens works contrary to the interests of all stakeholders involved. At least 95 percent of those who enter state prisons will return to society at some point, and these citizens often struggle to provide for their own basic needs upon release, much less service the debt they have incurred as a result of their conviction. Simply affording rent payments, buying food and clothing, and covering transportation expenses can be remarkably difficult for a person with a criminal record. The state needs to take this into consideration and set realistic terms for returning citizens to pay current obligations and repay debts, while at the same time establishing a reliable, coordinated, and systematic approach for the collection of money that is due. Such reform would increase the amount of money received by families, victims, courts, and criminal justice agencies, while decreasing the costs associated with recidivism.

The state of Georgia should consider implementing the following recommendations as a means of encouraging returning citizens to repay their debts and obligations while taking into consideration their need to be successfully reintegrated and reestablished within the community:

Identify offenders with child support involvement upon entry to prison

The state should identify offenders with child support responsibilities upon entry to prison by electronically matching the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) and Division of Child Support Services (DCSS) agency caseloads using common identifiers such as social security numbers and birth dates. This data match will allow the DCSS to provide pertinent information to incarcerated non-custodial parents concerning their child support obligation(s), as well as identify those who need to establish paternity and/or child support orders but have not already done so.

Provide child support information and services to parents during their incarceration

Once identified, the DCSS should inform incarcerated non-custodial parents of the amount of their child support obligation(s), notify them periodically of the amount their arrears have accrued, work with them to develop a plan for meeting these obligations upon release, and inform them of the incentives available to them through the state for consistent payment of support.

Provide a 90-day grace period to ease the transition phase

Upon release, the court and DCSS should automatically review the amount of child support returning citizens can pay on a case-by-case basis. Those who have no means of paying anything at that time should be given a grace period of 90 days before having to pay their obligations and repay debt. This grace period will provide them time to find a job, housing, transportation, and other essential needs that can enable them to meet their obligation. After the 90 days, those who still cannot pay their child support orders should be referred to the Georgia Fatherhood Program (GFP) or a Child Support Problem Solving Court (PSC) to receive additional help in finding a job and meeting their obligations.

Limit amount of wages to be garnished by the state

For returning citizens who have a job and are able to pay some amount of child support, the court should determine on a case-by-case basis the amount of wages to be garnished from their paycheck. The court should take into consideration such factors as the returning citizen’s income, cost of living, and other dependents that he or she is taking care of. The state should set a ceiling of 50 percent as the maximum percentage of wages to be withheld from a returning citizen – something which a third of the states have already done.

Forgive fines, fees, and surcharges owed to the state

The state should consider incentivizing returning citizens to pay child support and restitution by forgiving (or waiving) all or some of the fines, fees, and surcharges owed to the state for those who meet their monthly obligations. Forgiving these expenses in exchange for consistent payments would encourage greater compliance among returning citizens, which means that families and victims would receive more money in the long run. The state should tie participation in reparative activities as a condition for receiving these benefits, including drug treatment services, GFP, a PSC, or community service projects.

Reinstate driver’s licenses that were suspended for non-payment of child support

The state should lift driver’s license suspensions for returning citizens’ whose licenses were suspended because they were more than 60 days in arrears in making payments in full for current support, periodic payments on a support arrearage, or periodic payments on a reimbursement for public assistance. To maintain driving privileges, the state should require that returning citizens be actively seeking a job or actively working, and that they consistently pay child support according to their means.

Forgive arrears and interest owed to the state

The state should forgive arrears and interest owed to the state in order to motivate obligors to comply with long-term payment plans, to eliminate uncollectible debt, to facilitate case closure where appropriate, and to help families become more self-sufficient. To receive this benefit, the state should require that returning citizens make a set number of consecutive payments in exchange for a set percentage of arrears and interest owed to the state to be forgiven. Returning citizens should also have a determined minimum amount of arrears to participate in the debt compromise program.

Designate a single agency to track and consolidate returning citizens’ debts

One agency should be designated to track and consolidate individual returning citizens’ debts in a centralized tracking system and ensure that it remains updated as the person travels through the criminal justice system and is released into the community. This agency should be responsible for collecting all offense-related debt and disbursing funds according to the priority set by the federal and state government.[2] Regular updates concerning the total amount of debt owed and expected dates and amounts of repayment should be sent to returning citizens, victims, courts, and criminal justice agencies. Courts and criminal justice agencies should use this information to establish realistic repayment plans for returning citizens based on their financial situation.

 

Footnotes

[1] We realize that some will be frustrated by our use of the term “returning citizen” in this report and would prefer to see us use a more familiar term such as “ex-offender.” Our use of the term “returning citizen” is intended not as a political statement but as an acknowledgement that almost all offenders will return to our community at some point in the future and that it is in our best interest to think of offenders in that light, as our thinking will shape how we treat them during incarceration and what we expect of them upon release.

[2] Offense-related debt does not include child support, which is collected and tracked by DCSS and cannot be consolidated with restitution, fines, fees, and surcharges. Nonetheless, the amount of child support that has been collected should also be tracked by the agency that is consolidating offense-related debts, because the amount that goes toward child support (which must be paid first in priority according to federal law) impacts the amount that can be paid toward these other debts.

Endnotes

To view the endnotes included within the recommendations section of the report, please click here.

 

***Edit to the report: May 6, 2015

At the time of writing the report, the author was unaware that Georgia already has a detailed debt reduction program in place to assist indigent non-custodial parents who owe arrears to the state. The Division of Child Support Services’ (DCSS) State Debt Reduction Program (SDRP) provides non-custodial parents the ability to have a significant percentage of their state-owed arrears reduced if an agent determines that:

(1) “Good cause” existed for the nonpayment of the public assistance debt;

(2) Repayment or enforcement of the debt would result in substantial and unreasonable hardship for the parent owing the debt;

(3) The non-custodial parent is currently unable to pay the debt;

(4) The non-custodial parent is making regular payments of current child support, regardless of the amount.

The amount that eligible non-custodial parents can have their arrears reduced depends upon the amount they owe. Those with a greater amount of arrears owed to the state are eligible to have a greater percentage reduced (with the exception of those who owe less than $100, who can have their entire state-owed arrears balance waived). For example, non-custodial parents with state-owed arrears balances of $9,000 or greater can have their arrears waved or reduced by 75 percent, so long as they pay the remaining 25 percent owed in a lump sum payment or in 24 monthly installments.[i]

While Georgia has a detailed debt reduction program in place, it appears that the participation in the program is limited. In 2014, only 349 out of the 354,427 total non-custodial parents ordered to pay child support in Georgia entered into the plan, based on the 30 DCSS offices that reported.[ii]* More should be done to enroll struggling returning citizens with child support arrears owed to the state into the program. One way the state can do this is by promoting it within the Fatherhood Program and Child Support Problem Solving Courts (PSCs), which returning citizens will be likely to participate in.

Sources:

[i] Division of Child Support Services, “State Debt Reduction Guidelines,” Employee Reference Guide – Standard Operating Procedure 251, Email Release May 24, 2013.

[ii] Erica Thornton, Manager of the Policy and Paternity Unit, Division of Child Support Services, Georgia Department of Human Services, email message to author, February 3, 2015; Georgia Department of Human Services, “Division of Child Support Services: Fact Sheet,” Revised November 2014.

*While not all 354,427 non-custodial parents ordered to pay child support in Georgia owe arrears to the state, the large figure suggests that there may be numerous non-custodial parents (particularly those reentering society from prison) who do (or should) qualify for the program, but are currently being overlooked.

Debt as a Barrier to Reentry: Jonathan O’Neill’s Story

Prison, Barbed Wire

Jonathan O’Neill, a humble and soft-spoken man, is 46 years old and the father of fourteen children. He has been incarcerated since 2012 and currently resides at a transitional center where he works and takes various classes to prepare for his release that is set for Spring 2016. He is currently responsible for paying child support for seven of his children, which mostly consists of reimbursing the state for public assistance that was given to the children’s mothers. His other seven children are either grown or fully supported by their mothers.

When the time comes for Jonathan to be released, he will have as much as $45,000 in back child support, a suspended driver’s license, and the stigma of a criminal record. His story demonstrates how child support debt and its associated consequences can create significant barriers for people reentering society from prison.

The Debt Begins

Jonathan was just 19 years old when had his first run-in with the law. A joyride with a friend in a stolen car not only cost him his freedom, but also led his then girlfriend to seek Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to take care of their child. Like many incarcerated persons, Jonathan found out the hard way that he owed child support to the state as reimbursement for public assistance, and that his time behind bars did not delay responsibility to pay the state back. The 18-month prison sentence he received resulted in thousands of dollars in arrears accruing by the time he was released.

This debt made him angry and he refused to pay the state back for the public assistance given to his girlfriend.

Jonathan had his next two children with another woman. Though they lived together, this girlfriend also began receiving TANF apart from him knowing it. His child support arrears grew to $8,000 during this time because he was not paying the state for the public assistance it was providing for his children. Additionally, none of the money he spent to take care of his children while they lived together counted toward his growing child support debt because it was considered unofficial support since payments were not being made to the state as a reimbursement for public assistance. This led to a fall-out with his girlfriend and made him grow even more angry and rebellious toward the child support system over the next few years.

Jonathan explains, “I was mad at the mothers for doing this, so I neglected paying. I would take care of the children in my home, but I didn’t want to pay the state back. I had a rebellious spirit and felt like I was the father and I’m doing it how I want to.”

By the age of 27, Jonathan had five children from two mothers and over $14,000 in child support arrears. Having difficulty finding a job with his felony conviction, he began selling drugs to earn money. He was eventually caught with cocaine in 1999 and sentenced to 10 years on probation. Nine years later in 2008, he violated his conditions of probation by testing positive for marijuana, and he was sent to a Probation Detention Center (PDC) for 90 days.

A Turning Point

During his time in the PDC, Jonathan reflected upon the words a judge spoke to him in 2005: “You have so much in arrears, you will die owing the state money.” These words haunted him, and he wanted to make sure this did not prove true.

Upon release from the PDC in 2008, Jonathan became involved with a church that was located directly across the street from the PDC. It was through his involvement there that he experienced a spiritual transformation and became determined to earn an honest living. However, despite his earnest desire to find legitimate work, he struggled to find a job for eight months.

“I waited eight months and still I had no job. I got letters from the state threatening to lock me up for a whole year for non-payment of child support. I was tempted to sell drugs again. However, I chose to depend on God and He came through. I started painting at the church for no money. One day, God brought a man from the church who gave me a job at Food Lion because he was leaving.”

Jonathan gained skills as a meat cutter and worked consistently from 2009-2012 at stores such as Food Lion, Food Depot, and Piggly Wiggly, even earning employee of the quarter at his first store. During this period, he paid the full amount of his child support order each month plus a percentage of his arrears, amounting to $566 per month. He was determined to pay off his debt and make sure that he would not die owing money to the state

“I would have paid all of this debt at one time if I could,” says Jonathan, but at this point he was nowhere close to being able to do this. Instead, he paid what he could little-by-little. As a result, his hard work and determination enabled him to reduce his arrears by thousands of dollars.

Jonathan was heading down the right track.

Another Setback

In the summer of 2012, Jonathan and his fiancé were scraping by to pay the bills. Desperate for a way to earn extra cash, he discovered that he was able to win quick cash through gambling.

“I got addicted to playing gambling machines for cash money. I started losing money and got behind on rent. I didn’t want to face my children after not being able to pay, and I thought I could gamble to get the money.”

The day came when Jonathan gambled away money that he needed to pay his family’s rent. Upon losing, he panicked and snatched the money from a manager at the gambling center. For his rash actions, he was charged with robbery by snatching and was sentenced to prison for the second time.

“I’ve been in prison for two years and three months now. The state just sent me two letters for two different cases and I owe a total of $45,308 in arrears ($18,209 non-TANF arrears and $27,099 TANF arrears). It’s discouraging. I’m in prison – what do they expect me to do?”

Georgia is one of three states that does not allow inmates to earn money while working in prison, leaving him no way to pay his debt while incarcerated. However, now that he is at a transitional center, Jonathan has the ability to work, earn money, and have some earnings withheld to pay child support.

He is currently working at Arko Veal Meat Co. earning $8.50 per hour and working 26 hours per week. This work enables him to have $389 withheld from his paycheck every month to go toward paying child support.

Barriers to Reentry

While Jonathan’s time in the transitional center is helping to prepare him for reentry, he will face new challenges upon release. His home is far from the transitional center where he currently resides, which means that he will lose his present job and have to look for another one. He tried to transfer to a transitional center closer to home in order to find a job that he could keep upon release, but he was denied that opportunity. Still, he is hopeful that he will be able to get his old job back at Food Depot when the time comes to be released.

If this opportunity does not work out, his plan is to try to get a job at a different grocery store called Harvey’s. The manager at this store has hired individuals with convictions before, which gives him hope that he can work there, too. He would earn around $10 an hour as a meat cutter.

Even once Jonathan is able to secure a job, he still faces the challenge of commuting to work daily due to his suspended driver’s license. His license will only be reinstated by paying a sum that is twice the amount of his current child support order of $566, in addition to paying the normal monthly order.

“When the child support agent firmly stated that the amount I pay to get my license reinstated does not include what is coming out of my check, I hung my head. I thought, ‘Man, I can’t do this.’”

This sum of $1,698 is simply too much for him to pay while trying to pay rent, bills, and other living expenses.

Jonathan tried to arrange an agreement to make a partial payment in order to get his license back at an earlier point in time: “I told the agent, ‘Ma’am, I really need a license. Can I make a partial payment?’ She said no and told me that the judge ordered me to pay the full amount. She then said that we could get it modified, but that it would cost $300 just to go before the judge. I told her I can’t come up with it.”

He estimates that it will take him a year of full-time work at the grocery store before he will be able to pay to have his driver’s license reinstated. For now, he plans to get to work by having his fiancé, who works a full-time job as a night-shift nurse assistant, or his adult son drive him there.

Jonathan has a sincere desire to do whatever it takes to support his kids, which he demonstrated during the three years leading up to his incarceration. He simply lacks the money needed to have his license reinstated because it must go toward meeting his family’s basic living expenses.

“Having a driver’s license would not only be my way to work, but it would also help out with my duties as a husband and father around our home. My son and daughter are starting Kindergarten and Pre-K and my fiancé works from 11 pm to 8 am, so I will have to take them to school before I go to work.

For now, he is determined to make the best use of his time in the transitional center as he prepares for his reentry. He expresses an air of freedom and hope that did not exist earlier in his life, despite being encumbered by debt. He knows what it looks like to fully embrace his roles as a responsible father and citizen, and he plans to continue down this path once he is released.

 

 

Criminal Justice Reform Council Releases New Report – Focus on Reentry

Scales of Justice

The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform (CJRC) released their latest report this past Friday (Feb. 6th) with recommendations aimed to increase public safety, hold offenders accountable, and reduce recidivism in our state. This is the fourth consecutive report that the CJRC has produced since 2011 after being tasked by the Governor and the General Assembly to develop a smarter, evidence-based approach to criminal justice in our state.

As reflected in the report, a major focus of the CJRC and the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry (GOTSR) in 2014 was to develop a comprehensive approach to reentry so that every person leaving prison has the tools and support they need to succeed in the community.

To aid in the development of this approach, the Council and GOTSR partnered with the Michigan-based Center for Justice Innovation and reentry expert Dennis Schrantz to produce the Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative (GA-PRI). The GA-PRI is a five-year plan based largely on the evidence-based policies practices laid out in the 2005 Council of State Governments’ Report of the Re-Entry Policy Council and the 2008 National Institute of Corrections’ Transition from Prison to the Community (TPC) Reentry Handbook, but tailored specifically to meet Georgia’s reentry needs.

Georgia’s reentry team pursued federal funding to implement the GA-PRI in 2014, highlighting its “one strategy, one plan” philosophy that aims to unify planning and implementation of evidence-based practices among agencies and stakeholders. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) welcomed the smart plan and awarded Georgia four grants which totaled $6 million. Georgia’s strategy is now being featured by the BJA at training events across the county.

Details and recommendations related to the GA-PRI can be viewed in this report, as well as the complete three-year implementation plan which is located in the addendum.

Other key pieces of the report include recommendations in the following areas:

Adult System

  • Restore the intent of the Georgia’s First Offender Act
  • Improve pre-trial diversion alternatives for certain offenders
  • Extend parole eligibility for certain qualified nonviolent, recidivist drug offenders
  • Extend sentences for offenders whose probation has been revoked and who wish to participate in a felony accountability court program

Juvenile Justice System

  • Improve the collecting and sharing of electronic data throughout the juvenile justice system

Misdemeanor Probation System

  • Address deficiencies and improve transparency and fairness in misdemeanor probation services

At GCO, we are particularly happy to see the following recommendations in the CJRC’s report which aim to increase employment opportunities for returning citizens:

  • Establish licensing policies that ensure returning citizens have appropriate opportunities for licensing
  • Explore opportunities for a state work opportunity tax credit to incentivize offering employment to returning citizens
  • Revamp prison work details to provide experience that meets the requirements of Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs) so technical college credits can be awarded for work experience gained on prison details
  • Explore resources available to purchase and deploy a Department of Driver Services (DDS) mobile unit to process state IDs at state correctional facilities

 

Read the full report here and visit the newly created website for the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry.

 

 

Education Savings Accounts – A Good Idea

Excited Student - 2

There is buzz under the gold dome about the potential for a bill proposing Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for Georgia’s students and parents. ESAs have earned the praise of many as the “next generation of school choice.”

Here is a run down of how they work and their potential advantages: Parents who choose not to enroll their children into public schools full time can receive 100% of what the state would have spent on their children at a public school – a change that is revenue neutral for the State and gives freedom to parents. The Department of Education deposits funds directly into a privately managed bank account, which parents or guardians can access through a restricted-use debit card. Child-specific factors – such as disabilities – may determine the amount of money distributed into a family’s ESA. Parents or guardians can then spend the money on private school tuition, online learning curriculum, special education services and therapies, textbooks, and a number of other qualifying education-related services and providers. Furthermore, parents can save unused funds from year to year and roll the funds into a college savings account.

Parents and students can use ESAs to tailor education to their unique learning needs and interests.

This unbundling of educational services can allow for greater innovation and diversity, since it encourages a supply-side response that puts pressure on all facets of the traditional education system to be far more responsive to student needs, which amounts to a true student-centered education agenda.  ESAs promote a more market-based education system, creating incentives for producers and providers to try different ways of meeting the needs of students and parents.

Though Education Savings Accounts are still taxpayer funded, the way they are structured makes for a dynamic closer to the one involved in spending your own money on your own children: Parents still insist on the best quality education but have more incentive to find a bargain. ESAs constitute an improvement on traditional school choice programs for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, parents have a strong incentive to maximize the educational value that their children receive in an ESA, because they are not required to spend it all at one place and in one lump sum.

The best way to enhance accountability and performance is to empower parents to choose the education that works best for their kids.

Two states have already adopted ESA laws – Arizona and Florida – and more are likely to follow in the coming years. These laws hold great potential to expand educational opportunity and improve the entire education system in ways that better and more efficiently meet the needs of children.

 


Georgia Considers Privatization of Child Welfare System

A bill to privatize most of the state’s child welfare services was introduced this week by Senator Unterman (R-Buford). The legislation, Senate Bill 350, would require the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) to develop a plan by January of 2015 by which is would contract with a limited number of regional lead agencies to provide the vast majority of child welfare services that are now, at least in part, offered by the state. The program would be phased in over the course of two years.

While lead agencies would be allowed to provide up to 35 percent of the services needed within a region, the law would require that they contract with other local agencies to provide the majority of services.

Contracts between the state and lead agencies would be for five years with DFCS having the ability to extend the contract for an additional three years. While DFCS would no longer be a direct service provider, it would remain responsibility for providing oversight of the contracted agencies.

As an incentive to agencies to find suitable permanent placements for children in their care, the law would fund agencies with per-child payments for a maximum of six months. After six months agencies would be required to pick up the tab for children that remain in their care. Likewise, agencies would not be eligible for per child payments for any child returning to the agency within 12 months of a permanent placement.

The reform is modeled after similar efforts in Florida and more than a dozen other states over the last couple of decades and has been driven by Georgia’s continued failures to adequately serve the children in its care.

While privatization is supported by many state leaders, including the Governor and Lt. Governor, opponents to the change say that it is being done too quickly and without considering ways to reform the system without privatization.

Evidence from Florida and other states shows that privatization can have beneficial effects, including improved safety for the children in care and a reduction in the number of children in state custody.

Yesterday, the legislation was favorably voted out of the Healthcare Delivery Subcommittee of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. A stakeholder meeting was expected to be held today.

School Choice – All Options Aren’t Created Equal

In a recent article addressing school choice alternatives – particularly the Georgia Tax Credit Scholarship program and its $58 million annual cap – some integral details regarding the execution of various school choice alternatives were somewhat blended together.  We thought we’d take a minute to unpack some details about school choice and public funding of education.

First, the Tuition Tax Credit program is not a voucher program; rather, it simply allows individuals and corporations to donate money to Student Scholarship Organizations (SSO’s) that award scholarships to kids to attend private schools. A large number of these kids come from poorer families.  Individuals or corporations contributing to SSO’s are eligible to receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits against their Georgia income tax liability for that year.

Second, those scholarships can only be used for private schools, not for homeschooling and not for charter schools. In fact, charter schools ARE public schools. So for what it’s worth, when a child leaves a traditional public school in order to attend a charter school, by definition, all the money being used to educate that child is still being spent by a public school.

Finally, it’s important to know that when a child leaves a traditional public school, the school no longer has the financial burden associated with educating that child. Additionally, the child rarely takes all of the money with him/her; a portion of the money – how much depends upon the program – stays at the original school. Typically, the amount the school keeps is not greater than the amount that is lost, but it hardly matters because they are keeping some portion of the money designated to educate a child who is no longer there. That means that on a “per pupil” basis, the school does have more money after a child leaves to take advantage of one of the state’s school choice programs.

Given the span of time in which the tax credit cap was met, it is apparent that Georgians are eager to exercise choice when it comes to seeking the best educational options for their children.  As previously discussed, this high demand is no surprise but there are still many Georgia students in need of the opportunities presented by programs like the tax credit scholarship.