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Nunn said he never spent the ten dollars his daughter sent him while he was incarcerated, because it meant so much to him on a personal level. And having the state take half of a family member's gift is incredibly painful for any prisoner, he said. Advocates also noted that losing a significant cut of already-paltry prison wages can be very frustrating. According to the Department of Corrections, wages for low-level jobs can pay as little as eight cents per hour. After the restitution payment, that's four pennies.
"People don't understand how much people have to pay for their own upkeep and survival in prison," said Block, of the Coalition for Women Prisoners, citing the need to purchase basic toiletry items. "All the things that help you make it through, you have to pay for them. They are not given to you. And the only way you can pay for them is whatever small amount of money you can make ... or if you have families or friends who want to help support you."
In a way, these criticisms bolster one of the policy arguments in favor of the restitution system, supporters say. Ryken pointed to case law that advocates for the ordering of full restitution in every case, regardless of the offender's ability to pay. "It's something the state wants the defendant to bear fully to appreciate the weight of their conduct and the full extent of their conduct," he said. Restitution fines, he added, support "rehabilitation of the offender, making them fully responsible for their conduct, and deterring future misconduct. If the penalty or burden is large enough, it will cause the defendant from recidivating — from doing it again."
But for some people with criminal records, restitution can have the opposite effect.
One day in the summer of 2011, De'Mario Lewis almost gave up. The 24-year-old West Oakland resident was trying to provide for his son, who was then six months old, but he could not find any work. At the time, Lewis had an unpaid restitution fine from a recent misdemeanor case. With the lingering debt, he could not clear his legal record, a fact that prevented him from getting a job. And without a job, he couldn't pay off what he owed.
"What do we do? How do we make some money? Do we sit up here with a change cup?" Lewis said. "Or shit, do we hire ourselves and buy a bundle of crack cocaine and go sell it? That'd be the easiest route."
Lewis remembered the day that he seriously considered making money selling drugs. At that very moment, he said, his baby boy stared up at him and poked his face with his tiny hand, temporarily blinding him. "He grabbed me between my eyes with his two fingers," he said. "I looked at him, but I couldn't see him."
It was a powerful sign, he continued. "God showed me that if I go out there and do that, I'll never see my son again. That was my breaking point."
Inspired by his son, Lewis chose not to sell drugs. But his internal battle underscores the contradictions of the restitution system. While some argue that these financial punishments are designed to discourage people from reoffending, in practice, they can make it very challenging for debtors to stay out of trouble. Lewis' struggle also highlights the way restitution can punish people who commit relatively minor crimes.
He was charged with illegal possession of a firearm in September 2009. After fighting the charge for months, in February of 2010, he was ordered to spend 45 days in county jail. When he was released, he had nearly $800 to pay off in restitution.
"I was just so furious because I was like, 'I really want to get my life back right,'" said Lewis. "I had this restitution hanging over my neck. It's bullshit. It's unfair."
This catch-22 is just one of many ways in which fines can become obstacles after incarceration, drowning people in debt and trapping them in poverty.
When he was released from custody, Lewis initially started paying $50 a month, but even those small payments proved challenging. With an unpaid restitution debt, he couldn't clear his criminal record, and thus was not eligible to get the license he needed to get a job as a security guard. Meanwhile, he was trying to prepare for the birth of his first child, who was born in January 2011. He eventually landed a temporary, part-time job with Oakland Rising, a local nonprofit, but still could not pay off his debts for months.
"I can work towards something better in my life, but when you have certain limitations on you, you have to settle for less," he said.
As he started raising his son, Lewis stopped paying restitution regularly. At the same time, he managed to stay out of trouble. Last fall, he finally received some good news — he was offered a job as a teaching assistant. But he would not be able to start until he cleared his criminal record, which meant he had to pay his restitution in full. So with support from local advocacy groups United Roots Oakland, Urban Peace Movement, and Urban Strategies Council, Lewis finally paid off his restitution debt in December 2013. He's in the process of getting his record cleared and hopes to start teaching full-time soon. In the meantime, he has been working part-time as a ticket-taker at the Coliseum. "I'm back to being normal again," he said.
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