Dear Senator ________,
I’m writing to urge you to oppose HB758, HB1089, and HB123. These bills authorize the Department of Corrections to take large portions of money from currently and formerly incarcerated people and others who have been convicted of crimes, by seizing funds from their prison accounts, wages and bail returns. These bills not only impact people in prison, they also hurt their families, loved ones and communities. They do nothing to promote community safety, but rather increase recidivism by increasing financial burdens that severely inhibit people’s ability to successfully return to their communities and live healthy, safe and sustainable lives. Please find more information about the potential negative impacts of each bill below. As a concerned community member, this issue is very important to me, and to many people--please vote “no” on these bills.
HB 758 will push well-meaning people toward financial disaster and recidivism. It’s no surprise that the recidivism rate is almost 60%, because the reentry process is already very difficult, even for people that are determined to get it right. People come home from prison, hopeful and eager to contribute to their family and community, and struggle with debt, low-wages or unemployment, and little support. Research shows what most people experiencing the system already know: it’s often financial problems that put formerly incarcerated people on a path to spiraling debt, homelessness, unemployment, and eventually prison. And now there’s a proposal to take away 25% of the wages that returning people earn.
If you watch the cycle of recidivism playing out in your own community, the damage this bill would do is very easy to see. But if you’re more removed from the problem, just think through what it would take to make a living under this law. The margins are already thin. In the Metropolitan Statistical Area of Erie PA, the estimated cost of living for a single adult, without children is around $20,000. The average full-time worker in health care support makes $23,000 a year. Retail workers make $22,500. Homecare workers average $21,000 a year. Landscaping and maintenance average $19,500 a year. And food service workers average $18,000 a year. After losing 25% of their wages, full-time workers in all these professions would make significantly less than the cost of living. If they can’t sustain two jobs, or if they have a sudden expense, they will probably go bankrupt, quickly. Of course, it’s much more difficult for returning and convicted people with even one child, which would bring the cost of living in Erie to $42,000 a year. The point is that most returning and convicted people already live very close to financial disaster. Taking a quarter of their wages is likely to put many over the edge.
HB 1089 would take 25% of incarcerated people’s wages while they are in prison. These wages range from 19 cents per hour to a maximum of 42 cents per hour. Most incarcerated people spend their wages on basic necessities. Even the PA Department of Corrections thinks that this bill would leave many incarcerated people unable to afford basic necessities. Depriving incarcerated people of the basic goods they need for survival if incarceration itself is not already, this practice is undeniably “cruel and unusual punishment.”
HB 1089 also punishes the families of incarcerated people. The law would allow prisons to take 50% of the deposits families make to an incarcerated family member’s personal accounts. Many of these families already struggle with the financial burden of having a family member in prison. Under this law, if a mother wanted her child to have $25 in their account, she would have to deposit $50. That money has to come out of other parts of the family budget. It may mean less money available for expensive visits to distant prisons, and for (the improved but still abnormally priced) prison phone calls. This would be very harmful because regular contact with family members is one of the most positive influence on incarcerated people.
HB123 also is likely to increase incarceration rates, and primarily punish the families and support systems of people convicted of a crime. This bill would take the bail money that would otherwise be returned to the depositor from anyone who owes outstanding costs, fines, or restitution owed in another case. In most cases, this is money put together by a family member or friend, often with great difficulty. This bill disincentivizes paying bail, meaning that people would be incarcerated for longer periods of time--before they have even been convicted of a crime--increasing the population of already overcrowded jails and the already high cost to the state. Additionally, there is some concern that HB123 violates the legal purpose of bail and in fact represents an unlawful or improper taking, which would likely meet with legal challenges. Though these bills are being advanced under the guise of increasing restitution payments, most of the money taken would not go to crime victims but to the budgets of courts, prisons, and other criminal justice institutions. I cannot understand a proposal to extract money from mostly low-income families and hard-working returning community members and put it towards an arbitrary and often astronomical system of costs and fines. As your constituent, I do not want that done in my name.
I want you to know that this issue is important to me. As I see it, the issue is about strengthening my community. Creating yet another punishment, to extract even more money from the people convicted of crimes and their families, in my community, is unacceptable. I strongly urge you to vote NO on HB123, HB1089, HB758, and all legislation that unfairly penalizes people in prison and their family members, increases recidivism, and has untold financial, social, and moral costs to our communities and to the state. I assure you that I will pay attention to what you do on this issue, and I will remember it when making my decisions in future elections.
[your name here]