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Will Former Inmates Return to Crime Because of New Interest Hike?

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Next month, the Colorado Judicial Department will start charging interest on the court-ordered restitution that state prisoners owe to crime victims — a surcharge that was supposed to be imposed across the state under a law passed fifteen years ago, but which officials in many judicial districts neglected to collect.

The fee was apparently intended as an incentive to encourage felons to get their debt to society cleared up as quickly as possible. But some prison reform advocates fear that the additional financial burden — and the prospect that the interest may be imposed retroactively, in some cases — could make it more difficult for cash-strapped prisoners to successfully re-enter society.

"I'm all for restitution," says Dianne Tramutola-Lawson, the chair of Colorado CURE, an advocacy group for prisoners' families. "But how are these guys going to pay what they owe? They make sixty cents a day in prison, and most of them make nothing even when they get out."

Under state law, 20 percent of a prisoner's monthly savings (from work and family donations) is earmarked for restitution costs. A bill passed by lawmakers in 2000 authorized interest of 12 percent annually on the outstanding balance owed; but a 2014 audit revealed that many courts neglected to impose the interest charge. The Judicial Department recently announced that it would start assessing a 1 percent monthly interest charge on restitution balances starting in September. The change affects approximately 80,000 criminal cases, in which restitution is owed to 143,000 crime victims — for property damage, theft, medical expenses and other costs.

Tramutola-Lawson points out that most prisoners have no real source of funds other than their families — who already face a battery of fees imposed by prison phone services, the video visitation industry and other emerging for-profit businesses built on supplying services to the incarcerated and their loved ones. Although 12 percent vig a year may not sound like much compared to some credit-card rates, it could be absolutely ruinous if imposed retroactively — an option that court officials say may be available to victims who request it. 

One lawmaker, Tramutola-Lawson recalls, had a simple answer for family members who were fearful that any money they send to incarcerated relatives will be seized by the state: "Don't send them anything."

Since paying off restitution plays an important part in parole decisions, as well as the ability to earn and save after release, the interest plan is being viewed with some consternation by people on the verge of emerging from behind bars. As one inmate, now in a halfway house, recently wrote in a letter to another prison reform group: "For guys with small restitutions, this is feasible, but what about every one else? Mine is moderate. But I would have to pay approximately $518 a month just to keep the interest at bay...without affecting the total! I have developed a strong desire to make amends for the commercial burglaries I committed. But this makes doing so almost impossible. I will not turn to crime again, ever. But [I] can easily see how this would trap many into doing so."

Judicial officials say they've fielded few requests for retroactive interest so far and that the situation might be addressed by the legislature in the next session. 

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