Paying for Punishment

By Donna Murch, Boston Review
August 1, 2016

Opposition to mass incarceration and the war on drugs has lately become fashionable. The Koch brothers, Grover Norquist, and Newt Gingrich are lining up with the NAACP, ACLU, and Van Jones to support criminal justice reform. Many assume that budget savings are driving this newfound consensus.But understanding decarceration only through the lens of cost cutting has a major blind spot. America’s contemporary system of policing, courts, imprisonment, and parole doesn’t just absorb money. It also makes money through asset forfeiture, lucrative public contracts from private service providers, and by directly extracting revenue and unpaid labor from populations of color and the poor.

In states and municipalities throughout the country, the criminal justice system defrays costs by forcing prisoners and their families to pay for punishment. It also allows private service providers to charge outrageous fees for everyday needs such as telephone calls. As a result people facing even minor criminal charges can easily find themselves trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of debt, criminalization, and incarceration.

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