When David Silva returned in 2006 from serving 38 months in New Jersey state prison for offenses related to his substance abuse, he faced more than $35,000 in debt. He didn’t owe this money to private creditors; he was in debt to the government for his prosecutions and stints in prison. Silva’s debts for “use” of the criminal justice system included public defender fees, various surcharges that went to things such as police uniforms and drug-use prevention, and probation supervision fees, as well as restitution and fines. Silva’s debts also included about $10,000 for substance abuse treatment he received in prison. Though he was working full-time when he got out, the amounts owed were crushing and were a barrier to meeting his basic needs. His debt also precluded him from getting a driver’s license, which only made it harder for him to get back on his feet. Silva ultimately filed for bankruptcy.
This path from prison to bankruptcy is all too common. As policymakers across the country increasingly move toward rethinking mass incarceration, the excessive costs imposed on criminal defendants remain roadblocks to people seeking to transition back to their communities.