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New study measures familial costs of mass incarceration

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There's the estimated $80 billion a year the U.S. spends on incarceration at all levels. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

How much has America's experiment in mass incarceration cost? There's the estimated $80 billion a year the U.S. spends on incarceration at all levels. Then there are the lives of the 2.4 million prisoners, by far the most of any country in the world. (Even China, a police state with four times as many people as the U.S., has fewer prisoners.)

A new study attempts to measure the cost that incarceration exacts on prisoners' families. The study — entitled "Who pays? The true cost of incarceration on families" — finds that "Families pay both the apparent and hidden costs while their loved ones serve out sentences in our jails and prisons."

The study was led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together and Research Action Design and involved in depth interviews of hundreds of former prisoners, their family members and employers and hundreds of focus group participants across more than a dozen states.

Among the report's findings:

Imprisonment often puts people in debt: "Forty eight percent of families in our survey overall 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. Sixty-seven percent of formerly incarcerated individuals associated with our survey were still unemployed or underemployed five years after their release."

"Across respondents of all income brackets, the average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees alone was $13,607, almost one year's entire annual income for respondents who earn less than $15,000 per year."

Keeping in touch can be costly: "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 related to a family member's incarceration."

Women are often left to pay fees and penalties associated with incarceration: "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."

Daniel Allott is deputy commentary editor for the Washington Examiner