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States are heaping ever more fees on people who have been convicted of crimes, making it more difficult for them to successfully re-enter society. That’s the conclusion of a report, “Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry,” from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The center looked at so called “user fees” in the 15 states with the highest prison populations. Those fees, which include fines and restitution, are generally small on an individual basis but combine to create hundreds or even thousands of dollars of debt for ex-convicts. That makes it even more difficult for people with criminal records to pay child support and find jobs and housing, the center found. “Across the board, we found that states are introducing new user fees, raising the dollar amounts of existing fees, and intensifying the collection of fees and other forms of criminal justice debt such as fines and restitution,” the report reads. “But in the rush to collect, made all the more intense by the fiscal crises in many states, no one is considering the ways in which the resulting debt can undermine reentry prospects, pave the way back to prison or jail, and result in yet more costs to the public.” Thirteen of the 15 states surveyed charge public defender fees, while 14 of those states charge penalties on fees that aren’t immediately paid, creating an “endless cycle of debt.” Those with criminal convictions can lose their driver licenses or their eligibility to vote due to nonpayment, while some states even incarcerate those who don’t pay, the center found. “All of these policies are at odds with America’s growing commitment to reduce recidivism and over-incarceration, and promote reentry for those who have been convicted of crimes,” the report reads. “As states look for ways to shave their prison and jail budgets without compromising public safety, eliminating the debt-based routes back to jail — both direct and indirect — is an obvious choice for reform.” The center recommended numerous changes, including exempting indigent defendants from user fees. Lawmakers should also examine the full cost of existing user fees before adding new ones. The center also recommended eliminating public defender fees.

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