AEI Event: Improving Prisoner Reentry and Reducing Recidivism

Man in handcuffs

Watch a recording of the event here.

Georgia Center for Opportunity was privileged to partner with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in co-hosting an event on the issue of prisoner reentry at AEI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, July 28th.

The event featured two panels: The first consisting of non-profits leaders who have faced challenges and successes in helping former prisoners successfully reintegrate into society, and the second featuring government leaders who have similarly faced challenges and successes in working to reform the criminal justice system itself.

GCO’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Eric Cochling, moderated the first panel that featured four non-profit leaders, including Craig DeRoche of Justice Fellowship, Harriet McDonald of The Doe Fund, Bryan Kelley of Prison Entrepreneurship Program, and Harold Dean Trulear of Healing Communities. The panelists discussed such themes as the importance for Americans to view prisoners and people with a criminal record as a valuable asset to society, the importance of work and its role in promoting human dignity and successful reintegration, the necessity for returning citizens to experience a change in attitudes and values to avoid recidivating, and the role of the community in embracing returning citizens and “walking with” them in their journey.

The second panel was moderated by Robert Doar, Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at AEI, and featured three government leaders: Georgia’s own Jay Neal, former state representative and current executive director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry, Gary Mohr, commissioner of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and Chauncey Parker, special policy advisor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. This panel highlighted specific approaches that states have taken to improve prisoner reentry as a means of promoting public safety, including instilling the mindset that reentry begins at the point of arrest, basing decisions on data instead of knee-jerk reactions, facilitating better connections between family members and incarcerated loved ones, and instilling the importance of viewing offenders as human beings among the criminal justice workforce.

Watch the event and gain a better understanding of how effective collaboration between families, faith communities, service providers, and the government, as well as a changed perception of the ones they are serving, is essential for promoting successful reintegration among returning citizens.


Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


What Returning Citizens Need to Make Successful Transitions

The fundamental building blocks for returning citizens’ successful transition back into society are, ironically, the most challenging for them to secure: steady employment, safe and affordable housing, and reliable transportation. If these three major needs are met, their chance of ending back behind bars is greatly reduced.

Employment, housing, and transportation are largely interrelated, as it is hard to have one without the other. For instance, it is difficult for a person to keep a job without having a place to live relatively nearby; it is doubtful a person can continue to pay rent without having a regular source of income; and it is challenging to find housing or commute to work without a reliable means of transportation. This catch-22 is what makes reentry so intimidating for those getting out of prison.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Finding safe and affordable housing is a particularly perplexing issue for returning citizens. After leaving prison through parole, probation, or by maxing-out, their housing options are generally limited to living with family or friends, living at a transitional house, securing public housing, or renting. Each person’s circumstances determine their living situation.

For some, going to live with a family member is the best option, as it enables them to have a free place to live while trying to get back on their feet (that is, if there is another provider supporting them). For others, this is the worst place for them to go, as family members have been a poor influence on their lives and would further entrap them in a lifestyle of crime. Still, others may be in desperate circumstances and in need of public housing, while a few have the necessary means to rent an apartment or a house.

Potential Roadblocks: Affordability and Criminal Records

By far the biggest obstacle to obtaining housing is affordability. Many people leave prison owing various debts including child support arrearages, court fees, damages, restitution, etc. Faced with financial stress from multiple directions, many find it difficult to balance paying rent with any number of fees while trying to secure a job that pays a reasonable salary.

The other major hindrance that returning citizens face in obtaining housing is the impact of their criminal record. Many private leasing offices run background checks on prospective tenants, prohibiting those with a felony conviction from occupancy. Further, those who seek public housing run into the problem of Public Housing Authority’s limited capacity and multiple restrictions. Those who were evicted for drug-related criminal activity are banned from public housing for three years (unless they complete an approved rehabilitation program), while lifetime registered sex offenders and anyone convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines on public housing property are banned for life.

Housing Partnership Shows Some Success

As a means of overcoming some of these barriers, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Department of Corrections, and the Department of Community of Affairs teamed up to form Reentry Partnership Housing (RPH). This program provides housing for people who have been authorized to parole but remain in prison due solely to having no residential options. For this group, the government pays approved housing providers $600 per month for three months which includes housing and food. Those who demonstrate the best outcomes receive the most parolees from the state.

The program has shown some success in alleviating the burden for hard-to-place parolees. “From 2002 to 2008, RPH placed 516 parolees, including 30% classified as special needs.” In addition, “Over 58% of participants secured employment…only 5% had their parole revoked and less than 3% absconded” (see Award-Winning Georgia Reentry Program).

While the program has had some success, one notable shortcoming is housing providers are often not located in the best cities for parolees to find jobs and establish roots. It is essential that returning citizens are placed in sufficiently resourced areas to aid in their successful transition; otherwise, the program becomes merely a short-term solution that leaves the person jobless and homeless after three months.

Identifying Housing Solutions

A potential remedy to this problem is to identify, facilitate, and fund housing providers in the cities where returning citizens are most likely to return. If people are placed in areas where they can find a job and have access to transportation, their chances of successfully transitioning into society are much higher.

The Governor’s Office of Transition, Support & Reentry (GOTSR) is making a considerate effort to identify and coordinate housing providers in the six reentry pilot sites that have been established across the state* (Albany, Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, and Savannah).

GOTSR is in the process of implementing the new Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative (GA-PRI) Framework at these sites as a means of creating a seamless transition from prison to the community for those who will be released in these cities. The office is in the midst of hiring community coordinators, housing coordinators, employment coordinators, and prison in-reach specialists to aid in making this transition successful for returning citizens.

A big part of the work taking place at these sites involves identifying all of the resources in the local community that are available, assessing what resources are missing, encouraging service providers to work together and avoid duplicating efforts, and creating a database where returning citizens can easily access these resources. GOTSR launched a website earlier this year that contains the database where service providers can be found.

Undoubtedly, it will take the effort of local communities committed to meeting the needs of these men and women in order to see a tangible difference being made. However, if this sort of local involvement takes place throughout the state in conjunction with the efforts being made at the state level, who knows what sort of impact we will see in the lives of returning citizens over the next decade?


*Note: GOTSR does not provide funding for service providers in these communities but rather works to identify, coordinate, and galvanize these providers to effectively serve those returning to their communities from prison.

Culture, Economics, and Poverty


We had an unusual experience last week, with President Obama participating in, of all things, a panel discussion on poverty with three leading public intellectuals, E.J. Dionne, Jr., Robert Putnam, and Arthur Brooks. The conversation ranged pretty widely, with a number of issues coming up, some of which didn’t get all that much attention. I know that there were some hot button moments, which received a good bit of radio and television air time, not to mention editorial and blogosphere commentary, but I’d rather take a deep breath and proceed just a bit more calmly.

Let me begin by observing that the President displayed flashes of the persona that made him at least somewhat appealing when he first appeared on the national scene. He at least said he wanted to get past the partisan divide where one side spoke only about economics and the other only about culture:

The stereotype is that you’ve got folks on the left who just want to pour more money into social programs, and don’t care anything about culture or parenting or family structures, and that’s one stereotype.  And then you’ve got cold-hearted, free market, capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and…think everybody are moochers.  And I think the truth is more complicated.

I think that there are those on the conservative spectrum who deeply care about the least of these, deeply care about the poor; exhibit that through their churches, through community groups, through philanthropic efforts, but are suspicious of what government can do.  And then there are those on the left who I think are in the trenches every day and see how important parenting is and how important family structures are, and the connective tissue that holds communities together and recognize that that contributes to poverty when those structures fray, but also believe that government and resources can make a difference in creating an environment in which young people can succeed despite great odds.

And it seems to me that if coming out of this conversation we can have a both/and conversation rather than either/or conversation, then we’ll be making some progress.

I agree: let’s talk about poverty in terms both of the economic straits in which individuals and families find themselves and of the culture (embodied in the media, schools, and government programs, as well as in churches and other community institutions) that should, but doesn’t necessarily, encourage responsibility for oneself, for one’s partner(s), and for any and all children one brings into the world.

Here are some takeaways from the conversation. There was, in the first instance, a good bit of talk about the disparity of opportunities available to those at different ends of the economic spectrum. Robert Putnam set the tone here, alluding to evidence from his recent book that our poor kids get much less support and have much less to which to look forward than do their wealthy counterparts:

[Y]ou can see it in measures of family stability.  You can see it in measures of the investments that parents are able to make in their kids, the investments of money and the investments of time.  You can see it in the quality of schools kids go to.  You can see it in the character of the social and community support that kids — rich kids and poor kids are getting from their communities.

The President responded to this opening by referring to an idealized portrait of community that Putnam draws in the book, one where, despite class differences, everyone shares in the same social and public institutions:

[W]hen I read Bob’s book, the first thing that strikes you is when he’s growing up in Ohio, he’s in a community where the banker is living in reasonable proximity to the janitor at the school.  The janitor’s daughter may be going out with the banker’s son.  There are a set of common institutions — they may attend the same church; they may be members of the same rotary club; they may be active at the same parks — and all the things that stitch them together.  And that is all contributing to social mobility and to a sense of possibility and opportunity for all kids in that community.

Perhaps that was true in some ethnically and religiously homogeneous small towns and urban neighborhoods—Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City is eloquent on this subject—but I have my doubts about it as a sweeping generalization. While, for example, private schools did not proliferate until the 1960s, they have long been available to Roman Catholics (as an alternative to the erstwhile weak-tea Protestantism of the public schools) and to the very wealthy (think Phillips Exeter, Andover, and Choate in the Northeast, as well as Westminster and Woodward here in Atlanta). And anyone who has lived in the South would know that there at least once was a socioeconomic pecking order among Protestant churches, with an enormous contrast between, say, the up-market Episcopalians and the down-market Primitive Baptists. (Indeed, if anything, the decline of the mainline churches and the rise of evangelicalism have served to counteract this phenomenon, so that a much broader socioeconomic spectrum is represented in the pews in many churches on any given Sunday).

Nevertheless, there are three ways community thus conceived can arguably promote social mobility. There are, first of all, the cultural norms of hard work and personal responsibility that can be shared across class boundaries. In this respect, so-called positive role models are not distant abstractions, but personal acquaintances. Peer pressure doesn’t come from (or only from) local gang members but—one hopes—from high-achieving classmates and neighbors. Second, the networks of opportunity readily available to the affluent become open to classmates and acquaintances who don’t have access to them on their own. Finally, because everyone participates in these public institutions, everyone cares about their continued vitality. Thus, for example, parents get involved in PTA’s, care about school board elections, and are active in promoting “investments” (one of the President’s favorite words) in public education. In the Georgetown conversation, we hear something about the last two considerations, but very little (and in any event not enough) about the first.

But if this talk about community isn’t simply to be a nostalgic reminiscence about or longing for something we’ve lost, it behooves us to ask what, practically, we can do to restore it (or preserve it where it still exists).

It would, for example, be impossible—not to say highly undesirable—to compel everyone to attend public schools. While I could imagine some political leaders succumbing to that temptation and trying to regulate private schools out of existence, to the degree that education remains primarily a state and local responsibility, I can’t imagine such a policy sweeping the nation.   And even if—horror of horrors—private options were taken off the table, people have historically voted with their feet, exercising “school choice” by moving into a neighborhood whose public schools are attractive. Political efforts to negate the effects of private residential choices haven’t found favor with voters or, for that matter, with the Supreme Court.

This is where, I humbly submit, school choice programs that empower especially lower income people to place their children in better schools actually show some promise of making the aforementioned benefits of community available. Children can escape an essentially homogeneous peer culture that is inimical to achievement and move into schools where parents are involved and there are positive role models. Too bad the President and his party consistently oppose school choice, preferring all too often simply to demand more funding for public schools, as if government by itself can compensate for the social ills that inevitably accompany dysfunctional communities.

A similar statism is implicit in the President’s comments about the role of religion in dealing with the problem of poverty. Here’s what he said:

[W]hen I think about my own Christian faith and my obligations, it is important for me to do what I can myself — individually mentoring young people, or making charitable donations, or in some ways impacting whatever circles and influence I have.  But I also think it’s important to have a voice in the larger debate.  And I think it would be powerful for our faith-based organizations to speak out on this in a more forceful fashion.

This may sound self-interested because there have been — these are areas where I agree with the evangelical community and faith-based groups, and then there are issues where we have had disagreements around reproductive issues, or same-sex marriage, or what have you.  And so maybe it appears advantageous for me to want to focus on these issues of poverty, and not as much on these other issues….

There is great caring and great concern, but when it comes to what are you really going to the mat for, what’s the defining issue, when you’re talking in your congregations, what’s the thing that is really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians, or as Catholics, or what have you, that this is oftentimes viewed as a “nice to have” relative to an issue like abortion.  That’s not across the board, but there sometimes has been that view, and certainly that’s how it’s perceived in our political circles.

While President Obama didn’t go as far as Robert Putnam in mischaracterizing the relative weight of religious emphasis on poverty as opposed to social issues, these remarks do imply that, in his view, social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage play a distractingly large role in the outward-looking role of all too many Christian churches. He does hedge and qualify his statement a bit, but the larger point is that, so far as “our political circles” are concerned, the church’s witness on poverty takes a back seat to its positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. As many have pointed out, this is simply mistaken, but it reveals something about what sorts of actions matter to the President. Furthermore, I’ve argued elsewhere that the President’s principal interest in faith-based groups seems to be mobilizing public support for government action, rather than encouraging their activity as an alternative or supplement to government. He doesn’t see—or at least doesn’t want to highlight—what churches and other faith-based organizations can do as actors in civil society, as possible alternatives to government action. We aren’t supposed to help ourselves or help one another but through the instrumentality of the government. The national conversation on poverty should largely be devoted to what government can do.

I’d like to conclude with a reflection on perhaps President Obama’s most solid contribution to the conversation:

[W]e can all stipulate that the best antipoverty program is a job, which confers not just income, but structure and dignity and a sense of connection to community.  Which means we have to spend time thinking about the macro-economy, the broader economy as a whole.

He’s right in every facet of his statement. Having a job is not just about the income, but also about the self-discipline that comes from having to meet obligations to employers, customers, and clients and the dignity that comes from being able to take care of oneself and one’s family. And these relationships are the backbone of every community. I do not mean hereby to deprecate the institutions of civil society—churches, neighborhood associations, and so on—but they don’t prosper without the dignified contributions (both personal and financial) of more or less self-reliant individuals.

While it is clear that our economy hasn’t in recent years generated enough good jobs to lift our least fortunate brothers and sisters out of poverty, I found little in President Obama’s remarks that gave me much confidence that he held the key to success in this regard. We can’t redistribute our way to a better future, so a simple—almost demagogic—focus on inequality won’t do. As Arthur Brooks argued—frequently and effectively, in my view—there is no substitute for a dynamic and productive economy as a generator of wealth. And, as he also argued, ensuring that everyone benefits requires making hard choices that our political classes haven’t demonstrated their willingness to make.

Perhaps conversations like the one that took place last week will provide an opening for further, deeper exchanges of views and for genuinely productive policy-making. But I’m sad to say that I’m not holding my breath.

Minimizing Debt and Promoting Successful Reentry

Businessman walking through open door.jpg

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.



[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.


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.


[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.

The Consequences of Debt for Returning Citizens

Behind chain-linked fence

This is the third 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 and the second entry laid out causes of debt for people reentering society from prison.

An inordinate amount of debt and unrealistic terms of repayment create numerous barriers for returning citizens, including disproportionate financial pressure, the threat of revocation and re-incarceration, and various penalties for non-compliance.

Mounting Financial Pressure

Having to immediately begin paying financial obligations upon release combined with carrying thousands of dollars in debt puts tremendous financial pressure on returning citizens. Many leave prison with great anxiety wondering where they will live and work, and some possess only what they were given upon release: $25, a change of civilian clothes, and a bus ticket to their release destination.[i] A great number of returning citizens do not have a decent-paying job prior to prison,[1],[ii] and their prospect of finding one after release is slim.[iii] One study reveals that three-fourths of people released from prison owing child support, restitution, and supervision fees reported having difficulty paying off these debts.[iv] They may be willing to make these payments but simply do not have the means to do so right away.

Threat of Revocation or Arrest

The payment of debts and obligations is a condition of probation and parole in Georgia;[v] therefore, a violation of these conditions by failing to pay can result in a revocation hearing.[vi] While it is not common practice for the Parole Board to revoke a parolee solely for his or her failure to pay financial obligations,[vii] in some jurisdictions revocation hearings are regularly sought for those on probation.[viii] One public defender in Georgia reports that probationers who cannot pay criminal justice debt are often arrested for failing to report to officers who are involved in collection.[ix] This may not result in re-incarceration, but it may cause a person to miss work and subsequently lose his or her job. However, those who fail to appear at a payment hearing can have a warrant issued for their arrest.[x] Further, Georgia law requires a person to remain under probation supervision until all outstanding obligations are paid, or until the termination of the sentence, depending on whichever comes first.[xi]

Penalties for Non-Compliance

For those who do not pay court-ordered financial obligations and debt, Georgia law allows for garnishment, levy, foreclosure, and all other actions provided for the collection of fines, costs, and restitution.[xii] This can be detrimental for a returning citizen who is struggling to make ends meet. Unpaid debt also may lead to the suspension of one’s driver’s license, making transportation to and from work very challenging, since Georgia law allows for the suspension of a driver’s license for any person who has accumulated child support arrears equivalent to or greater than two months’ worth of payments.[2],[xiii] This barrier can impede a person’s ability to find work and earn income, leading to more and more debt accumulating. In addition, criminal justice debt can be converted into a civil judgment which allows credit reporting agencies access to the information. This in turn damages – or further damages – a returning citizen’s credit, making it more difficult to obtain employment and housing.[xiv]

A combination of these barriers may lead a returning citizen to become desperate and resort to engaging in the underground economy as a means of supporting himself or herself, or paying his or her debts.[xv] As a result, the returning citizen may face re-incarceration for committing new offenses,[xvi] leading to more debt accumulation and increased costs to taxpayers.



[1] Fifty-nine percent of people detained in jails across the nation in 2002 reported monthly incomes of less than $1,000 prior to arrest.

[2] Suspending and reinstating driver’s licenses is an administrative process that is handled by the DCSS.



Some of the citations listed below are abbreviated. To view the full citation, see the “Notes” section in our report, A High Price to Pay.

[i] Laurie Linke and Peggy Ritchie, Releasing Inmates from Prison: Profiles of State Practices, U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections, September 2004, 25,,76 (tution Procedures,”Library/ 021386.pdf.

[ii] Doris J. James, Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 201932, July 2004, revised October 12, 2004, 9,

[iii] Devah Pager, Bruce Western, and Naomi Sugie, “Sequencing Disadvantage: Barriers to Employment Facing Young Black and White Men with Criminal Records,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 623 (2009): 195-213, National Institutes of Health Public Access, Author Manuscript, available in PMC February 27, 2013, 4,

[iv] Rachel L. McLean and Michael D. Thompson, Repaying Debts, 8; Nancy G. La Vigne, Christy Visher, and Jennifer Castro, Chicago Prisoners’ Experiences Returning Home, Urban Institute, December 2004, 10,

[v] Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller, Criminal Justice Debt, 21, endnote 118; Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, “Parole Conditions,” accessed July 24, 2014,

[vi] Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller, Criminal Justice Debt, 25.

[vii] Robert Keller, Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support, and Reentry, email message to author, April 1, 2014.

[viii] Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller, Criminal Justice Debt, 21, endnote 119.

[ix] Ibid., endnote 145; See Telephone Interview with Nick White, Defender, Houston County Pub. Defender Office, Nov. 6, 2009.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] O.C.G.A. § 17-10-1(a)(2): “Probation supervision shall terminate in all cases no later than two years from the commencement of probation supervision unless specially extended or reinstated by the sentencing court upon notice and hearing and for good cause shown; provided, however, in those cases involving the collection of fines, restitution, or other funds, the period of supervision shall remain in effect for so long as any such obligation is outstanding, or until termination of the sentence, whichever first occurs.”

[xii] Ibid., endnote 196. See O.C.G.A § 17-10-20(c): “Fines and restitution can be collected through levy, foreclosure, garnishment, and all other actions provided for the enforcement of judgments in Georgia”; See O.C.G.A.§ 42-8-34.2(a) “authorizing the collection of ‘arrearage . . . through issuance of a writ of fiera facias’ from defendants for whom payment of fines, costs, and restitution is a condition of probation. However, no one the Brennan Center interviewed knew of wage garnishment or liens being used in practice.”

[xiii] O.C.G.A. § 19-6-28.1(b); Tina Brooks, Parental Accountability Court Coordinator for the Flint Judicial Circuit, email message to the author, July 31, 2014.

[xiv] Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller, Criminal Justice Debt, 27; See O.C.G.A. § 17-10-20(a): “In any case in which a fine or restitution is imposed as part of the sentence, such fine and restitution shall constitute a judgment against the defendant”; Jonathan D. Glater, “Another Hurdle for the Jobless: Credit Inquiries,” New York Times, August 6, 2009, accessed April 10, 2014, pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[xv] Kirsten D. Levingston and Vicki Turetsky, “Debtors’ Prison – Prisoners’ Accumulation of Debt as a Barrier to Reentry,” Clearinghouse Review Journal of Poverty Law and Policy 41 (2007): 188, 0394.pdf.

[xvi] Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller, Criminal Justice Debt, 24.


Why Do People Leave Prison with So Much Debt?

Stacks of Coins

This is the second 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, as well as a recent update to one of the recommendations.

Returning citizens often face a mountain of debt upon leaving prison that makes it more difficult to successfully reenter society. Some of this debt may have existed prior to incarceration – such as consumer debt and child support – while much of it arises as a direct result of a criminal conviction, and is made much worse by subsequent incarceration and unemployment. Studies have shown average debt amounts in certain jurisdictions to be as high as $20,000 in child support arrears[i] and between $500 and $2,000 in offense-related debt.[ii] This onerous amount of debt, combined with the lack of opportunity to earn or save money while in prison, cause many offenders to reenter society with little hope of being able to repay what they owe.

Consumer Debt

It is common for people who are incarcerated to carry some level of consumer debt into prison, whether it is from outstanding mortgages, car loans, school loans, or credit cards.[iii] Missed payments on these mortgages, loans, and bills result in back interest, fees, and fines accumulating over the course of a person’s incarceration. The end result can be the offender accumulating an unmanageable amount of debt by the time he or she is released, leading him or her to file for bankruptcy.[iv]

Child Support

Child support typically comprises the largest debt returning citizens owe,[v] as non-custodial parents who are unable to modify their orders during incarceration can owe tens of thousands of dollars in arrears by the time they are released.[vi]

One study examining Massachusetts’ inmates and parolees revealed that non-custodial parents entering prison owed an average of $10,543 in unpaid child support and were likely to generate an additional $10,000 in arrears by the time they were released.[vii] More startlingly, one-fifth of the state inmates were estimated to generate arrears balances in excess of $30,000 while in prison.[viii] Another study of 350 parolees in Colorado demonstrated that they had an average balance of $16,651 in arrears.[ix]

Many returning citizens in Georgia are likely to be impacted by child support debt, as 60 percent of offenders in Georgia self-report having one or more children upon entering prison.[x] Accepting the circumstances of the incarcerated, some states allow offenders to modify their child support while in prison to avoid the accrual of arrears. However, Georgia offenders are prohibited from modifying their arrears while incarcerated, as the state deems incarceration to be a form of “voluntary unemployment.”[xi] As such, there is no mechanism for indigent offenders in Georgia to avoid accruing child support debt.

Once child support arrears have accrued, federal law requires non-custodial parents to pay the full amount owed to custodial parents, even if modification of orders is granted upon release from prison.[xii] However, federal law does permit arrears owed to the state to be forgiven retroactively. Child support arrears become owed to the state when the Department of Human Resources supplies Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to custodial parents who are not receiving requisite child support payments from non-custodial parents. Once funds are distributed, the non-custodial parent becomes obligated to repay the state for supplying the amount of assistance he or she was originally responsible for paying the custodial parent.[xiii]


Another source of debt which many returning citizens owe upon reentry is payment of restitution to victims. The amount of restitution owed by offenders usually ranges from several hundreds of dollars to several thousands of dollars, depending on the offense.[xiv] Restitution provides a way for offenders to pay for financial loss and other damages suffered by victims including lost property, medical expenses, costs of counseling, funeral and burial expenses, and lost wages.[xv] It also serves as a way for the offender and the state to demonstrate that they recognize the harm that the victim suffered and the offender’s obligation to make amends.[xvi] One study conducted in Pennsylvania found that paying restitution is related to lower recidivism.[xvii] As such, it is an important obligation for returning citizens to pay.

However, problems occur when a person’s financial status and earning capacity is not considered in forming restitution orders.[xviii] This can result in unrealistic terms of repayment being formed, which, combined with other court-imposed financial obligations, create a financial burden for the returning citizen and may discourage him or her from repaying anything at all.[xix] When this situation happens, it leaves victims without compensation for financial loss or damages and diminishes their confidence in the criminal justice system.

In Georgia, the Crime Victims Restitution Act of 2005 mandates that offenders make restitution payments to victims while under parole supervision.[xx] The court determines the amount of restitution and manner of paying it during sentencing, and parole officers are responsible for facilitating and monitoring payment compliance once the offender is in the community. Parolees must begin paying restitution upon release and are required to pay a minimum of $30 per month. [1],[xxi]

Fees, Fines, and Surcharges

A third source of debt that encumbers returning citizens is fees, fines, and surcharges that arise as a direct result of a criminal conviction.

Fees are amounts charged to offenders in exchange for the services provided by courts, probation departments, parole supervision, and other agencies.[xxii] For example, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles collects a monthly supervision fee of $30 from every parolee with a supervision period of three months or longer. [2],[xxiii]

Fines imposed by the court are intended to punish offenders and deter others from committing such crimes.[xxiv] The amount of the fine varies based on the person’s charge and can be mandatory or discretionary.[xxv] A fine for a third DUI offense in Georgia, for instance, can be as high as $5,000.[xxvi]

Finally, surcharges are add-on amounts often unrelated to the crime but used to generate revenue for criminal justice agencies.[xxvii] Revenue is designated toward such things as retirement funds for sheriffs and peace officers, law enforcement facilities and training, indigent defense programs, and education and treatment programs.[xxviii] While small in isolation, surcharges can total hundreds and even thousands of dollars.[xxix]

Georgia began collecting surcharges in 1950 when the legislature passed a statute requiring a deduction to be taken from every criminal fine to support the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund. By 2001, the number of court-imposed surcharges had risen to 21 to support nine state programs, five local programs, and the State General Fund.[xxx] Surcharges range from $0.50 per case to 50 percent of the total fine amount.[xxxi]

Inability to Earn or Save Money in Prison

A fourth reason returning citizens in Georgia have difficulty repaying debts upon release is that they do not have the ability to earn money for their work performed while incarcerated.[xxxii] As one of only three states that do not pay inmates for work,[3][xxxiii] Georgia bars those who are indigent from being able to meet current obligations, pay-down debt, or save for their inevitable reentry while in prison. This policy removes a strong incentive for them to work and develop skills and experience that will be helpful in obtaining a job upon release.


Without having a realistic plan and payment options to pay-off all of this debt, people returning from prison are less likely to pay anything at all, more likely to engage in the underground economy to avoid wage garnishment, and more likely to make bad decisions that may result in re-incarceration. The consequences of debt can be detrimental for returning citizens.



[1] Payment is required upon release for parolees serving 90 days or more under parole supervision.

[2] Parolees serving for violent offenses pay a monthly victim compensation fee of $30 in lieu of the supervision fee.

[3] Georgia inmates who participate in the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) and inmates who are placed in a transitional center are the exception, as they do have a chance to earn money while incarcerated. However, PIECP is limited to two prisons – though the state has plans to expand it to three to five more prisons – and there are only 13 transitional centers across the state serving 2,674 of 53,558 inmates . The other two states who do not pay inmates for work are Arkansas and Texas.



Some of the citations listed below are abbreviated. To view the full citation, see the “Notes” section in our report, A High Price to Pay.

[i] Nancy Thoennes, Child Support Profile: Massachusetts Incarcerated and Paroled Parents, Center for Policy Research, May 2002, 26,

[ii] Carl Reynolds et al., A Framework to Improve How Fines, Fees, Restitution, and Child Support are Assessed and Collected from People Convicted of Crimes, Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Texas Office of Court Administration, Interim Report, March 2, 2009, 8,

[iii] Erica Sandberg, “Ex-offenders face big debt challenges after prison,”, August 30, 2010, accessed May 8, 2014, para. 7,

[iv] Connie Prater, “How to prepare financially for time in prison,”, October 15, 2010, accessed March 26, 2014, para. 7,

[v] Carl Reynolds et al., A Framework to Improve, 10.

[vi] Nancy Thoennes, Child Support Profile, 18.

[vii] Ibid., 26.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Jessica Pearson, “Building Debt While Doing Time: Child Support and Incarceration,” Judge’s Journal 43 (2004): 7; Jessica Pearson and Lanae Davis, Serving Parents Who Leave Prison: Final Report on the Work and Family Center, Center for Policy Research, 2001, ii,

[x] Georgia Department of Corrections, Inmate Statistical Profile, 8.

[xi] Office of Child Support Enforcement, “Project to Avoid Increasing Delinquencies: ’Voluntary Unemployment,’ Imputed Income, and Modification Laws and Policies for Incarcerated Noncustodial Parents,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, July 2012, 4,; See O.C.G.A. § 19-6-15(j).

[xii] Jessica Pearson, “Building Debt,” 5.

[xiii] Rachel L. McLean and Michael D. Thompson, Repaying Debts, Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2007, 26,

[xiv] Judge Brian Amero, Henry County Superior Court, telephone conversation with author, May 29, 2014.

[xv] National Center for Victims of Crime, “Restitution Procedures,” in Promising Practices and Strategies for Victim Services in Corrections, 1997,; National Center for Victims of Crime, Making Restitution Real: Five Case Studies on Improving Restitution Collection, 2011, 3, 4,

[xvi] National Center for Victims of Crime, Making Restitution Real, 4.

[xvii] R. Barry Ruback, Restitution in Pennsylvania: A Multimethod Investigation, Submitted to Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Final Grant Report, August 2002, 9, 98,

[xviii] National Institute of Justice, “Restitution,” Archived material that is the product of five regional symposia held on restorative justice between June 1997 and January 1998, accessed April 9, 2014, para. 5,

[xix] Carl Reynolds et al., A Framework to Improve, 1.

[xx] Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, “Restitution,” accessed April 10, 2014,

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Rachel L. McLean and Michael D. Thompson, Repaying Debts, 2; Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, “Supervision & Victim Fees,” accessed April 10, 2014,

[xxiii] Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, “Supervision & Victim Fees,” accessed May 12, 2014,

[xxiv] Paul Peterson, “Supervision Fees: State Policies and Practices,” Federal Probation 76 (2012): para. 2,

[xxv] Rachel L. McLean and Michael D. Thompson, Repaying Debts, 2.

[xxvi] O.C.G.A. § 40-6-391.

[xxvii] Rachel L. McLean and Michael D. Thompson, Repaying Debts, 2.

[xxviii] Administrative Office of the Courts, Court Fees in Georgia – Laws and Information, Court Business and Process Improvement Program, October 2004, 5,

[xxix] Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller, Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry, Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law, 2010, 1,

[xxx] Russell W. Hinton, “Court Fees,” Department of Audits and Accounts, Performance Audit Operations Division, October 2001, 1. This executive summary can be found in the following report: Administrative Office of the Courts of Georgia, Municipal Court Fee Study, November 2003, Appendix A-1,

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Adam Crisp, “Georgia inmates strike in fight for pay,”, December 14, 2010, accessed May 20, 2014,

[xxxiii] Cindy Upton and Sarah Harp, Cost of Incarcerating Adult Felons, Kentucky Legislative Research Commission, Program Review and Investigations Committee, Research Report No. 373, 45,; A.J. Sabree, Strategic Planning and Implementation Consultant for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, email message to author, June 5, 2014; Peter Wagner, “Section III: The Prison Economy,” in The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industry, Western Prison Project and the Prison Policy Initiative, April 2003, 130-131,; Adam Crisp, “Georgia inmates strike in fight for pay,”, December 14, 2010,