Legislation would end CT prison debt collection system

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The day Teresa Beatty learned she owed the state over $83,600, she said, she had to ask why.

It was then that Beatty, who reportedly spent about two years in prison about 20 years before learning of his debt, discovered that Connecticut could collect money from ex-convicts for incarceration costs.

If signed into law in time, the state’s pending legislation could bring relief to people like Beatty, who said she now worries about having the financial means to put a roof over her head. House Bill 5390, which would repeal state prison debt laws, is set to become law after the Judiciary Committee gave it the green light late last month. .

Connecticut brings in between $4 million and $6 million a year using prison debt laws, according to the Department of Administrative Services, which handles debt collection.

The DAS did not provide data on the number of ex-prisoners who pay money off prison debt each year, but it did provide some insight into how the funds fit in overall. of its debt collection program.

“DAS Collections raises just under $70 million from approximately a few thousand parties each year,” spokeswoman Lora Rae Anderson said in an email. “Prison debt is less than 10% of those dollars, or $4 million to $6 million.”

“The DAS is taking action on these cases through referrals,” she said.

These referrals come from the Department of Human Services, Department of Correction, Lawyers, Healthcare Facilities, General Public Complaints, Insurance Interception Database, Probate Court and other entities, according to Anderson.

“After receiving a recommendation, DAS verifies that the state should take collection action based on state law and regulations, and continues to contact the appropriate parties,” she wrote.

When asked if the DAS collects money from people imprisoned as minors, Anderson defers to the DOC.

DOC spokesman Andrius Banevicius said the Prison Debt Act does not distinguish between minors and adults, but referred to the DAS on whether the state actually perceives incarcerated people as than minors.

“Essentially, DAS is still collecting,” he said. “I am not aware of any minors charged in recent memory.”

“If they don’t distinguish (between juveniles and adults), we wouldn’t,” Anderson said in a follow-up email. “We follow their guidelines.”

When the state comes knocking

In the 2019-20 fiscal year, inmates racked up a debt of $249 for every day spent behind bars, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut that seeks to end the practice. Beatty is a plaintiff in this lawsuit.

According to a 2018 report by the Office of Legislative Research, the state does not appear to seek assets such as regular salaries, but may seek funds earned under certain circumstances, such as lottery winnings, proceeds from lawsuits and inheritances.

The state also has an interest in “certain federal, state, or municipal pensions, annuities, insurance contracts, and similar items that are intended for government employee retirement benefits,” the report said.

If someone with prison debt wins money through a lawsuit, “the state’s claim is a lien on the proceeds,” the report said.

“The maximum amount of the claim is the total cost of the inmate’s incarceration or 50% of the proceeds, less certain expenses, whichever is less,” it says.

Similar guidelines apply when an ex-con receives an inheritance, which is why Beatty found herself with a bill of around $83,700 years after her release from prison.

“I have already paid my debt to society”

A resident of Stamford, Beatty spent 51 years living in the same house, she said. She cared for her ailing mother there, according to the ACLU lawsuit.

But when Beatty’s mother died in 2020, according to the lawsuit, the estate was to be divided among the surviving children.

Beatty now expects the probate court to order the sale of the house, she said.

“I was 7 when my parents bought the house, and in a month or two I won’t know where I’m going,” she said.

The ACLU lawsuit estimates Beatty will receive about $230,000 from the sale and says she needs the money to purchase a new home.

But because Beatty spent time in prison in the early 2000s “on charges stemming from being taken on drugs,” according to the lawsuit, the state is demanding about a third of her inheritance.

Beatty is a mother and grandmother, she says, and she takes care of her brother, who is disabled. She works as a certified practical nurse and has provided home services to the same 91-year-old woman for the past six years, she said.

She worked hard to turn her life around and stay clean after her release from prison, she said.

“My mom died in 2020 and now they’re going after me for my little inheritance,” Beatty said. “I just think it’s wrong. I think I’ve already paid my debt to society. Why do I have to pay twice?

“I have no money to pay anyone,” she said. “I’m going to be homeless.”

Asked about the bill to repeal prison debt, Dan Barrett, legal director for the ACLU of Connecticut and attorney representing Beatty, said he supports scrapping “these oppressive laws.”

“(Beatty) is currently at risk of losing the legacy her mother left her, which she needs to put a roof over herself and her family,” he said in a written statement. “Whether the suffering of our named clients or other clients would be stopped by the legislation would depend entirely on what the enacted language says, which could change at any time during the legislative process – if the law were to disappear from July 1, for example, Mrs. Beatty would still have to fight against the state before that.

State Rep. Steve Staffstrom, D-Bridgeport, said the bill would “completely repeal the privilege process” so that even if someone was in jail before the bill passed, they should not money to the state.

The legislation also aims to end ongoing recovery processes, he said.

“I think we probably need to double-check the language, but as one of the major proponents of this bill, I certainly intend for this bill to put an end to those clawback processes,” he said. he declared.

But there’s a caveat: If the state has already collected the debt, Staffstrom said, it wouldn’t repay the money.

Debt ‘threats’ to reformed offenders

After serving 17½ years on a homicide charge, Da’ee Muhammad McKnight said, he was released from prison 17 years ago. Since then, he has worked hard to prevent situations like his from happening again, he said.

McKnight works for Family Re-entry Inc., a Norwalk-based organization that helps incarcerated people successfully reintegrate into society. He is a leading advocate of the bill to repeal prison debt.

The state twice took money from McKnight after it won proceeds from personal injury lawsuits related to car crashes, McKnight said.

And he’s still not out of the woods. The state can collect prison debt for 20 years after an inmate is released, he said.

“I must have had this over my head for 20 years,” said McKnight, who argues the system is “not only morally wrong, it’s legally wrong.”

McKnight was convicted in 1988, he said, years before prison debt laws became law, but is still subject to them.

McKnight also said his sentencing papers waived all fines, a point that ties into an argument in the ACLU lawsuit.

The lawsuit argues that the prison debt violates the excessive fines clause of the US Constitution. It says Beatty’s conviction carried a maximum fine of $10,000, the amount associated with a Class C felony, and that the court waived the fine at sentencing.

Yet the state prison’s claims against Beatty’s legacy far exceed what she could have been fined as a punitive measure.

try to move on

State Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, calls jailhouse debt collection a “double jeopardy.”

Those released from prison have the opportunity to restore their families and finances and become better citizens, Porter said. Particularly in black and brown communities disproportionately affected by economic disadvantage and incarceration rates, Porter said, money from sources such as an inheritance can help build generational wealth.

Prison debt makes this more difficult.

“I think after years of not being able to financially take care of yourself and your family, for something like this to happen after paying for your time, you’ve done your time. It’s fair – it’s not fair,” she said.

But will the bill pass?

On March 29, the Judiciary Committee voted 28 to 11 to push it forward, a vote that fell largely within party lines but received support from a handful of Republicans.

Many of those who spoke out against the bill, including Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said they believed the prison debt system could be reformed but did not want to scrap it. completely.

“I think it’s worth trying to make sure there’s compensation just for managing the money and knowing that there are debts that you take on and you have to repay over time,” he said at the March 29 hearing. Committee hearing, according to a recording available online.

He also worried about the “hole” the legislation would leave in the budget.

“(Prison debt collection) actually brings in about $6 million a year, and so for us to go ahead with this legislation and drop this program, it’s going to create a $6 million hole. dollars,” he said. “There are programs out there that require less than that.”

Lawmakers are currently having conversations about incorporating the legislation into the budget package, according to Staffstrom.

“Obviously, it’s a short legislative session. … We’re running out of time,” the Bridgeport lawmaker said when asked if he thought the bill would pass. “But hopefully we’ll be able to get at least some of this bill done as we move towards a final budget package.”

It’s time to repeal prison debt laws, he said.

“It’s much more beneficial to be smart about crime and invest in rehabilitation and preventing recidivism,” he said. “The privilege process defeats that purpose.”

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