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Why Are Stimulus Checks Being Taken From People Who Need Them Most?

Case numbers are falling, vaccines are being rolled out, and business somewhat-as-usual is starting to pick up across the nation. And while it feels like life is slowly creeping back to normal, the truth is the economic fallout of COVID-19 is just beginning.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, right now there are 9.5 million fewer jobs than there were in February 2020. Nearly 81 million adults reported between February 17 and March 1, 2021 that their household found it somewhat or very difficult to cover usual expenses in the past seven days.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was passed last March with the aim of reducing the extraordinary hardship brought on by the pandemic. With key provisions for expanded unemployment benefits, extended health coverage, food assistance programs and a third round of stimulus checks for $1400, the ARPA should help promote an equitable recovery.

But a major detail has been overlooked: those who need the stimulus money most may never get it.

People who owe fines and fees associated with criminal and traffic convictions — disproportionately low-income people and people of color — can have their entire stimulus payments garnished for court debt. While the CARES Act stimulus checks sent to Americans last summer could not be garnished under the act’s provisions, ARPA checks can be intercepted.

Even before COVID-19 hit, millions of people in the U.S. were unable to afford the exorbitant fines and fees associated with criminal and traffic convictions. Now, one year into the pandemic, the situation is dire. These same people are losing vital stimulus money because of decades-old court debt.

People who are currently incarcerated are particularly vulnerable to garnishment directly from their commissary accounts. These accounts, often funded by family members, are used by incarcerated people to pay for basic necessities while behind bars — medication, food, soap, a phone call to a loved one. Commissary money also helps people support themselves and their families when they are released.

Several states have enacted emergency orders to prevent the most recent round of stimulus payments from garnishment from creditors or private debt collectors. But what happens when the state itself is acting as the debt collector?

Without clear federal provisions, protections for people with court debt are being left to the discretion of corrections departments, state, and local governments — all eager to fill a year’s worth of budget gaps. As we continue to observe the impact of the ARPA on our economic recovery, it is imperative that we stay informed on how the stimulus is actually being rolled out in the real world.

Here are some of the states we’re watching: 

In Colorado — one resident who lost her much-needed check to a decades-old misdemeanor called the governor and her congressman to give them the message that paying debt collectors isn’t stimulating the economy.

In Oregon we are seeing reports of stimulus checks being garnished from incarcerated individuals for unpaid fines and fees, the costs of incarceration and self-improvement programs According to HB 4322 which took effect in June 2020, CARES Act stimulus checks are exempt from garnishment unless garnishment is from a  judgment  in  a  criminal  action  that  requires  the  defendant  to  pay  restitution;  or a  civil  judgment  against  a  person  who  has  been  convicted  of  a  crime  if  the  civil judgment  is  based  on  the  same  underlying  facts  as  the  conviction.

In Washington — in an interview with OPB, Catherine Bentley of the Public Defender Association in Seattle described heavy garnishment of their federal stimulus checks and recalled “one gentleman who had $900 taken out of his check, which is 75% of the total stimulus money.”

In Washington The Intercept interviewed one woman who said 35% of her husband’s CARES Act check was garnished before it was deposited in his account. A portion of the deduction was even given back to the prison as a “cost of incarceration.”

In Arkansas — The Arkansas Senate passed SB544 which requires a person in the custody of a correctional facility to use funds from their stimulus checks to pay outstanding fees, fines, costs, or restitution.

In Alabama — Lee County District Attorney’s Office has taken action to garnish COVID-19 funds from prison accounts to satisfy the monies owed to victims and the court.

In Ohio — Ohio’s prison system has been garnishing thousands of people’s  COVID-19 relief money to pay for fines, fees, and other debts to courts and state agencies, according to a new lawsuit from the ACLU of Ohio.

Recommendations

Stimulus payments should go to every eligible U.S. resident in full — without exception. Just as we cannot stand for a two-tiered justice system, we cannot stand for a two-tiered recovery.

Garnishing stimulus payments from people who are struggling with debt, or those who are incarcerated, will only deepen the divide between those who were able to make it out of this pandemic and those who were left behind.

State and local governments must take the following actions immediately to prevent any further garnishment of vital resources for people in the criminal legal system:
  1. States must forgive outstanding criminal justice debt.  This money was largely uncollectible before the pandemic, and any collections now will come from money people desperately need now to support themselves and their families.
  2. Governors and state legislators should take whatever action is needed to prevent stimulus check garnishment in their state. Such executive orders/legislation should immediately review policies and practices that garnish stimulus payments for unpaid fines, fees, and costs associated with incarceration. Any policies that do so must be immediately ended or revised to ensure that any further stimulus money is protected from garnishment for unpaid fines and fees and costs associated with incarceration
  3. States must notify the Treasury Offset Program (TOP) to stop any stimulus garnishment for money owed to the state.
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