In 2019, people who had touched the criminal justice system in Mississippi held $507 million in debt as a result — more than double the $243 million they owed in 2009, according to a new report by the Hope Policy Institute.

While court-ordered financial burdens grow, the minimum wage hasn’t budged and overall inflation-adjusted wages in Mississippi actually dropped in that same timeframe, according to a Mississippi Today analysis.

Even many who finish their sentences — often coined their “debt to society” — are saddled with very literal debts that prevent them from the opportunities they need to thrive outside of prison. The consequences are highly concentrated in the Deep South, the report found, where people are both incarcerated and living in poverty at higher rates. On top of this burden, people exiting jails and prisons are often shut out of financial institutions — in some cases simply as a result of a lack of identification — making it virtually impossible to build wealth for the future.

The researchers found that these people face a domino effect: Because of a lack of identification, they struggle to access traditional banking and loans, leading them to utilize high-cost loans that prevent them from building good credit, which makes it more difficult for them to get a job.

Then, in some cases, their struggle to afford payments towards their court-ordered debts results in further punishment, even re-incarceration.

“In fact, in Mississippi, there are four restitution centers across the state serving as debtor’s prisons as formerly incarcerated individuals work to earn money to pay off court-ordered debts,” the report reads, referencing a Mississippi Today and The Marshall Project investigation.

The setbacks caused by the criminal justice system also overlap with other areas of government and social services, such as the child support system, Mississippi Today also investigated. One man Hope Policy Institute researchers interviewed worked to pay off all of his criminal fines so he could get his driver’s license back, only for it to be suspended three months later because he had gotten behind on child support.

“Basically, I was behind on child support for being in prison for 2 years,” he said.

When he was on parole, he said, “They put pressure on you and try to scare you and say they’ll hold you in violation. But the thing is, I’m on good behavior and I pay my supervision fee of $55 a month for parole… I just found out that I can’t get life insurance because I’m on parole.”

The institute recommends governments and private partners address consequences of this mounting debt by waiving fines and fees within the justice system, creating a small business loan program for the formerly incarcerated and adopting programs that assist people in securing proper identification.

“It is imperative that policy makers prioritize the easing of debt collection practices and prevent the accumulation of debt during incarceration – the costs of which are disproportionately borne by people with low-incomes,” Calandra Davis, policy analyst and author of the report. “Upon re-entry, access to financial services is critical for placing people on a path towards economic security and opportunity.”

Hope Credit Union is working to remove financial barriers for folks exiting the criminal justice system by allowing family members to open accounts on behalf of inmates before their release, accepting alternative identification and non-traditional credit to open accounts and issue loans and offering financial education classes.

We want to hear from you!

Central to our mission at Mississippi Today is inspiring civic engagement. We think critically about how we can foster healthy dialogue between people who think differently about government and politics. We believe that conversation — raw, earnest talking and listening to better understand each other — is vital to the future of Mississippi. We encourage you to engage with us and each other on our social media accounts, email our reporters directly or leave a comment for our editor by clicking the button below.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.