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Legislators Reconsider Law Requiring Former Inmates to Pay the Costs of Incarceration

House Bill 5390 aims to repeal the incarceration lien that applies to former inmates up to 20 years after their release date.

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Every year, $80 billion taxpayer dollars nationwide are spent on the cost of incarceration, according to data published by the National Institute of Corrections.

In Connecticut, some inmates are required to pay back the cost of their stay once they re-enter society. Now, there are efforts under way in the state legislature to put an end to that through House Bill 5390.

Fred Hodges was incarcerated for more than 17 years before re-entering society in 2006. Just a few years later, in 2009, his progress at work and at home was interrupted.

“I was in a car accident, and being in a car accident, some harm was done to me,” Hodges said.

Hodges said he pursued a lawsuit and settled for compensation of $21,000. However, he walked away with less than $3,000 due to an incarceration lien.

“I lost the car, totaled the car, and the money would have help me get to work back in Hartford. I was working at a halfway house in Hartford at the time,” Hodges said.

In Connecticut, the incarceration lien allows the state to claim payment from former inmates to cover the costs of their time in prison. This happens when a formerly incarcerated person comes into a large sum of cash: things like an inheritance, or Hodge’s legal settlement.

The state can claim 50% of the sum, or the full cost of incarceration, whichever is less.

A former inmate can be billed up to 20 years after a release date, so Hodges, out of prison for more than a decade, is still subject to the lien.

“I've been home for 15-and-a-half years now. I'm a homeowner,” Hodges said. “Telling me that 20 years after my sentence that I still owe the state is really servitude bondage to me, its indebted bondage."

Hodges shared his experience while testifying on House Bill 5390 at a virtual public hearing Friday, as state lawmakers reconsider Connecticut’s prison debt laws.

Democratic Senator Gary Winfield co-sponsored the bill.

“The bill actually aims to undo this system completely,” Sen. Winfield (D-New Haven) said. “It prohibits people from being able to move on with their lives. One of the things that's most important for us is that people are able to become stable, so they're less likely to recidivate, therefore increasing public safety."

Along with Hodges, several academics, students and lawmakers voiced support for repealing the lien at the public hearing.

"I'm very concerned about the idea that the state is essentially freeriding on the efforts of plaintiffs who just happen to be formerly incarcerated,” Rep. Matt Blumenthal (D-Stamford) said.

“The State of Connecticut can boast a collection that at its highest point is $6 million, or less than 1% of the state's total budget. Six million dollars collected from the most economically marginalized people in our state,” Jenny Carroll, director of Arthur Liman Center For Public Interest Law at the Yale School of Law, said.

Carroll said states like New Hampshire, Illinois and California that have repealed their pay-to-stay laws have seen little impact on their budgets.

However, Republican Senator John Kissel raised questions about the benefits of those funds for the state.

“We just talked with the commissioner of corrections, looking for funding for an ombudsperson and other support services, and $6 million is $6 million. And I'm just not ready to say, 'oh, well, we don't need to do that,'” Sen. Kissel, (R-East Granby) said.

Connecticut has one of the highest pay-to-stay rates in the country. The cost of incarcerating one inmate is $249 per day, or $90,885 a year. That is according to a federal class action lawsuit filed this month by The American Civil Liberties Union, calling for relief of what the complaint calls “oppressive prison debt.”

The complaint states 30,000 people are impacted by Connecticut’s prison laws, disproportionately Black and Latinx people.

Hodges said it is something he has seen firsthand.

“I can't express their hurt, the pain, and even the confusion that goes on with individuals when they come and tell me about what the state has done to them,” he said. “It seems like nobody cares about us on the outside who completed our sentence, that we're going to owe forever, for 20 years. That's a whole generation or two. And to keep us chained to sentence for 20 years after? I mean, come on, man.”

ACLU’s lawsuit names Governor Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong as defendants in the case.

The Governor’s Office has no comment on the lawsuit. A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said they are reviewing the case, but have no comment on the specific claims.

Elizabeth Benton, director of communications for Tong, issued the following statement:

“We are reviewing the lawsuit and cannot comment on the specific claims. State statutes currently require the state to recover the cost of incarceration, and these liens typically originate directly from DAS. The Office of the Attorney General becomes involved in certain contested cases, but has had no involvement in the specific cases involving Ms. Beatty or Mr. Llorens. There is a proposal before the legislature currently to repeal the cost of incarceration statute."

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