Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families


The average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees was $13,607.

This report is the result of a collaborative research project from 20 community-based organizations that studied the cost of incarceration on families across 14 states. As part of the study, researchers conducted a literature review, held 34 focus groups, and surveyed more than 700 formerly incarcerated people, as well as more than 300 of their family members and employers. The report also issues recommendations to reduce the harmful impacts of fines and fees in the future.

You can read the report here.

Key Findings
  • Across respondents of all income brackets, the average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees was $13,607.
  • In 63% of cases, family members on the outside were primarily responsible for court-related costs associated with conviction. Of the family members primarily responsible for these costs, 83% were women.
  • Nearly 2 in 3 families (65%) with an incarcerated member were unable to meet their family’s basic needs. 49% struggled to meet basic food needs, and 48% had trouble meeting basic housing needs because of the cost of incarceration.
  • 48% of families in the survey were unable to afford the costs associated with a conviction, while among poor families (making less than $15,000 per year), 58% were unable to afford these costs. 67% of formerly incarcerated survey respondents were still unemployed or underemployed five years after their release.
  • Two-thirds (67%) of respondents’ families helped them find housing. Nearly one in five families (18%) faced eviction, were denied housing, or did not qualify for public housing once their formerly incarcerated family member returned.
  • The high cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated family members led more than one in three families (34%) into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone. Family members who were not able to talk or visit with their loved ones regularly were much more likely to report experiencing negative health impacts.
  • About one in every two formerly incarcerated persons and one in every two family members experienced negative health impacts related to their own or a loved one’s incarceration, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, nightmares, hopelessness, depression, and anxiety.
  • All states need to restructure their policies to reduce the number of people in jails and prisons and the sentences they serve. The money saved from reducing incarceration rates should be used to reinvest in services such as substance abuse programs and stable housing, which have proven to reduce recidivism rates.
  • Upon release, formerly incarcerated individuals face significant barriers accessing critical resources like housing and employment that they need to survive and move forward. These barriers can fracture family support structures that are crucial to preventing recidivism—therefore, it is essential to eliminate fees and other barriers to contact.
Saneta deVuono-powell, Chris Schweidler, Alicia Walters, Azadeh Zohrabi
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, Research Action Design