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SPLC outlines barriers facing the formerly incarcerated to U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

In five Southern states, people released from jail, prison, probation or parole encounter laws that make it more difficult for them to get a job, find housing and access basic services due to their conviction – significant obstacles that must be removed to help people successfully return to their communities, the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a letter to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

They also face crushing debt – fines and fees stemming from their conviction – that can be difficult to pay off as they struggle to find employment in communities where these laws frequently make it difficult for someone to obtain a job after they’ve served their time, according to the letter.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent, bipartisan agency that advises the president and Congress on civil rights matters and releases an annual federal civil rights enforcement report, requested public comment on collateral consequences. The SPLC, which is working to end these obstacles in several Southern states, sent a letter dated June 19th, detailing re-entry barriers and sharing stories of six formerly incarcerated people, examining their efforts to successfully return home.

“What is clear from our examination of the issue is that too many people leave our prisons and face overwhelming obstacles to become financially and emotionally stable,” said Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director. “Until we reform the laws and enhance resources for people leaving jails and prisons, they will continue to cycle through a criminal justice system that sets them up for failure.”

The United States incarcerates 2.3 million people, with nearly 18 percent of those behind bars in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama and Georgia. Collectively, these Southern states have 5,283 such collateral consequence laws that make it harder for people to re-enter society once released. Louisiana alone has 1,494 such restrictions.

Collateral consequence laws can bar people from critical services such as public housing and food stamps. They can also bar people from receiving business and occupational licenses, preventing them from becoming gainfully employed. Many of these restrictions are permanent and automatically triggered by even a misdemeanor conviction.

Such laws also make it more difficult for people to pay off debt from court fines, fees and restitution that can total thousands of dollars. Many of these fees continue to accrue while someone is in prison.

Tyrone King, whose story is documented in the letter, was released from prison in Florida and moved to Alabama. Owing more than $10,000 in court fees – including restitution and child support – related to his nonviolent drug conviction, he lived in a homeless shelter and struggled to find a full-time job. His driver’s license was suspended when he failed to make payments.

Other times, such debt can cause people to recidivate.

Mark Walters, a New Orleans resident whose story is also included in the letter, returned to prison after violating probation when he desperately turned to selling drugs to pay court-mandated fees for anger management classes, drug tests, probation and child support. His job as a window installer simply did not pay him enough to make ends meet.

“I’ll see you when you come back,” his corrections officer had told him upon his release.