Photo by Steve Snodgrass, Flickr CC

This past week, the Philadelphia Board of Pensions and Retirement voted to withdraw its investments in the for-profit prison industry. However, the prison industry depends on more than just investors to finance its operations. It also relies on resources from defendants, inmates, and their families. Social science research demonstrates the far-reaching consequences of the penal systems’s money leveraging strategies.

Federal and state criminal justice agencies and correctional institutions charge defendants and inmates with the costs of arrest, prosecution, conviction, incarceration, and supervision. For example, fees include the cost of electronic monitoring and registration for people convicted of sex offenses. In some states, defendants pay for their hearings (court-fees). If found guilty, they also pay room-and-board fees while in prison (pay-to-stay fees).
As a form of punishment, judges impose monetary sanctions for misdemeanor and felony crimes alike. Monetary sanctions disproportionately disadvantage defendants from low-income communities through three different mechanisms: reducing family income, limiting their access to jobs or educational opportunities, and increasing the likelihood of ongoing criminal justice system involvement. These consequences challenge the assumption that monetary sanctions serve as a more favorable alternative to incarceration or supervision.
Correctional authorities outsource the operation and provision of services within correctional institutions to generate revenues for both public and private institutions. Contracts to run prison services – commissaries, telephone services, or online banking, for example – are based on commissions (what critics call “kickbacks”), which generate incentives for corruption and disproportionate profit-making at the expense of inmates and their families. This means companies have higher incentives to increase their profit margins by charging higher prices and fees.