Paying back society: prison sentence plus room and board

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 | 4:09 p.m. CDT; updated 5:16 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 19, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY —  Joey Spencer believes he is paying his debt to society with a 45-year sentence for assault and burglary, but the state wants more from him.

Under the Missouri Incarceration Reimbursement Act, the state is able to collect money from offenders to pay for their stay in prison.

"I know I did wrong. I believe I should go to prison," said Spencer, who is currently housed at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. "(But) I paid mentally, emotionally, physically, everything already. Why do I have to pay with what little money I do have?"

The attorney general's office has collected about $2,300 from Spencer through the act, which has been on the books since 1988.

In 2009, the office collected almost $550,000 from inmates through two attorneys and two investigators, full-time employees who work part-time in this area. The state spends about $37,000 annually on staff and $42,000 on attorney costs.

"We think it's very effective," said Greg Perry, the head of the division that handles collections for the state including child support and prison reimbursement payments.

"Our division does a great job on collecting money," he said. "(In terms of) bang for the buck, I think we do a nice return on investment."

Yet, collecting from Missouri's inmates may require litigation. When the attorney general's office was unable to continue collecting from Spencer, a lawsuit was filed to seek additional assets.

The suit was finally resolved with an out-of-court settlement that stopped further collection.

"Our office does a complete investigation given the resources that we have and the information we have available to us... and we only file the cases that we believe we have good faith basis to go forward on," Perry said.

The law requires the state to pursue cases only when an investigation indicates it can collect either at least 10 percent of the total cost of incarceration or at least 10 percent of the first two years, whichever is less.

The state only collected $105.64 from Ryan Hodges, who was sentenced to 25 years for a second-degree murder conviction. Hodges and the state reached a settlement, but Hodges calls it a waste of resources.

"If you just want to go after (about) $150, for nothing though, you wasted the taxpayers money, your time, their time, my time," said Hodges who claims he does not have a bank account or property in his name.

A relatively small percentage of lawsuits result in settlement, Perry said.

The state frequently collects money through liquid accounts like bank accounts or the accounts inmates have while incarcerated. It collected from both Spencer and Hodges through their inmate accounts.

The state can force the sale of property, including homes, but has not done so, Perry said, since at least January 2009.

Spencer said he was in segregation, a lock down that prohibits phone use, when the attorney general's office filed its civil lawsuit against him.

"I had no access to any kind of help," he said.

He sent a letter to the court asking for the decision to be put on hold until he was out of segregation and able to get a lawyer.

Hodges was also in segregation when he received notice about a lawsuit against him.

"I feel like it was a crime, that they robbed us. They say this is 'No More Victims Road,'" Hodges said, referring to the road the Jefferson City Correctional Center is located on, "but I was a victim."

Perry disagreed, saying these lawsuits are treated the same as any other.

"What occurs in these lawsuits is the same that occurs in any civil lawsuit," Perry said. "The inmates have... a number of different avenues by which they can make their wishes known and their arguments to the court. And they have the very same flexibility to get in touch with us."

Spencer has pursued a so-far unsuccessful lawsuit against the state over the implementation of the Missouri Incarceration Reimbursement Act.

Barry Mahoney, the president emeritus of the Justice Management Institute in Colorado, works with states to more efficiently implement and collect prison-related debts as well as child support.

"People coming out of prison generally don't have a lot of money; they don't have a lot of resources. And the practical effect of these laws will be to make it even more difficult for them to re-enter society and become law-abiding members of society," Mahoney said.

Spencer was convicted of two counts of first-degree assault and first-degree burglary in 1997. He said he found his fiancée and best friend sleeping together and he beat him up. He has 27 more years to serve before he can see the parole board.

"What am I supposed to do after being in prison for 35 years? Get out and do nothing? They're basically taking everything from us for a chance to survive in society," Spencer said.

Twelve percent of probation violations in the U.S. come from a failure to pay fines, victim restitution or other financial obligations.

At least two other states, New Jersey and Massachusetts, are considering reimbursement legislation similar to Missouri's.

"I see a lot of tensions here," Mahoney said. "You've got a societal interest in punishment of the offender, you've got budgetary pressures in the current economic situation that are looking for people casting around everywhere for ways to recoup costs and you've got a public and justice system interest in effective rehabilitation of people that are convicted of crimes."

Former inmates often owe more than just reimbursement. Many owe court fees, fines and victim restitution.

According to the Reentry Policy Council of the Justice Center, about 12 percent of probation violations in the U.S. come from, in part, a failure to pay these obligations.

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