After four months of prison “shock time” for drunken driving in St. Louis County, Alex thought he was done with his sentence.
Then he learned of another penalty: a $6,370 bill for the cost of his incarceration.
It was a punishment he never expected, never really had a chance to contest — and certainly could not afford as he tried to restart a life with a criminal record now trailing him.
Yet Alex, who agreed to an interview if his last name was not printed, is one of the luckier ones targeted by the Missouri Incarceration Reimbursement Act, a prison cost-saving program dating to 1988.
A Post-Dispatch review shows some inmates have been billed tens of thousands of dollars after the state learned they had enough to pay even just a portion of their costs.
Though a 2013 appeals court decision put limits on collections, some inmates can still lose all they have now — plus income identified but not yet received, as from some pensions.
Take Eugene Taylor, a construction worker serving 20 years for a child sex offense. A court judgment in 2014 put him on the hook for $181,884 — plus any future costs of his incarceration.
The trigger for that bill: two checks totaling $33,989 that his ailing, 98-year-old grandfather sent to him in prison.
It was supposed to go toward a place to live and a car when Taylor gets out. Now it’s going toward his room and board, in satisfaction of his court judgment.
In an era when just about everything in prison comes at a cost, it’s not surprising that Missouri inmates are expected to pay for their crimes with money as well as time.
A Brennan Center for Justice study last year found that 43 states, including Illinois, authorize “pay to stay” fees. Missouri’s law survived due-process challenges and has been called one of the nation’s most comprehensive.
But there’s growing concern that the U.S. trend of billing prisoners for everything from medical care to phone calls makes it more difficult for them to return as productive members of society.
“In the old days, when someone got out of prison, they were given some money and a bus ticket. Now we give them a bill,” said U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan, based in St. Louis. “If as a society we are going to get serious about rehabilitation, we need to take another look at how meaningful a second chance we are really giving people who come out of prison.”
Callahan previously was a Cole County circuit judge and ruled in many civil cases regarding the collections.
Just inmates who pass a certain threshold of assets are targeted. But they need only be able to pay part of their prison cost to end up billed for all of it.
For an individual, it can quickly add up: The average incarceration cost rose to $20,959 in 2014 from $16,308 in 2010.
Yet it barely registers for the state, which seized just $596,857 in room and board last year to put toward its $710 million annual corrections spending.
One in 310 inmates was charged for it in 2014, and one in 482 last year. And 29 percent of last year’s take came from just one inmate, who with a second prisoner provided 45 percent. The system has more than 32,000 adult prisoners.
A similar Illinois program, which dates to 1982, has recovered $512,219 in 11 cases since 2010, with 81 percent coming from just two inmates, the Chicago Tribune reported in November.
Couple couldn't afford the cash bail, and their court date was set 50 days out.
The process raises two questions for Kansas City defense attorney F.A. “Al” White Jr., who had never heard of the Missouri program until a client wrote him from prison in a panic.
“If rehabilitation is something we’re really after, do we really want to kick them when they’re down?” White asked. “And is it really going to mean that much to the state?”
Every day, when Taylor looks at his canteen account on a kiosk screen in prison, he sees his now-deceased grandfather’s gift — since seized — as a bitter reminder of generosity he could have received had it been delivered in some other way. “He didn’t know any better,” Taylor said.
Alex, nervous about talking publicly with the state’s claim still open, said he would not have pleaded guilty if he had known it came with a bill. Instead, he said, he might have pressed to get a deal for private alcohol treatment — an option he initially shrugged off because of the cost.
This way, he said, “It feels like I’m being punished twice.”
NOT ONLY MILLIONAIRES
The program, known by its acronym, MIRA, doesn’t often make headlines. But it did in 1996, when it collected a then-record amount from a man serving life for a murder in Jackson County. Darryl E. Gilyard, billed $97,725, was a poster child for how the program should work.
Gilyard had won a $4.3 million settlement in 1986, after his legs were crushed in a work-related accident. That left plenty to draw from when he was imprisoned for killing a friend over a drug deal two years later.
But few inmates are millionaires.
Tom, a sex offender who now lives in Jackson County, was about a year into his 10-year sentence when a letter from his bank inadvertently tipped off officials to $2,351 he had in an account and a $1,358 monthly pension. He also co-owned a $92,000 home where his ex-wife still lived.
That led to an August 2007 notice that the state intended to take $15,605 — what he owed for about a year at the Crossroads Community Center.
Tom, a retired truck driver and loading dock worker, did not find an attorney.
With no one at an April 2008 hearing to contest the state’s claim, a Cole County judge allowed the state to collect current and future prison costs. That last part was the key.
By the time Tom was released in 2012, he owed $105,525.
He paid $1,500 to a lawyer who told him the state might settle the claim for just $22,041. He paid it, which atop money already seized brought the total to $36,993.
“They wiped me out,” he said.
It was all he had, but he’s still not sure that settled things. “Far as I know,” he said, “they can come back on me any day.”
Several municipalities charge inmates for staying in their jails, and a city attorney and pr…
He may be right. According to the state, Tom still owes $68,532.
Tom spoke to a reporter only if his last name was not used.
The attorney general’s office, which files the prison cost claims, provided data but declined to comment otherwise through spokeswoman Nanci Gonder.
Gonder said in a statement: “Our office is responsible for enforcing the law as written and our attorneys and staff are diligent in doing so.”
Tom bought an old pickup with a bad transmission and works odd jobs to pay his $700 monthly rent and $35 weekly fee for group counseling ordered as part of parole.
“I would like to get a job somewhere but I’m afraid to because I know they’re going to be trying to take my money,” he said. Plus, he added, “it’s very hard as a sex offender to get a decent job.”
COURT BRIDLES CALCULATIONS
Payment is required if an inmate has enough assets, or a stream of income over five years, to cover at least 10 percent of incarceration costs over two years (or the actual cost, if it’s less).
If so, the state can collect its costs up to 90 percent of those assets.
So a hypothetical inmate serving a long term at a cost to the state of $22,000 a year would be eligible if his assets exceeded $4,400 — 10 percent of two years’ costs. If he served 10 years, the state could collect up to $220,000, so long as whatever was taken did not exceed 90 percent of what he had.
There are few attorneys in the state who specialize in fighting MIRA, and as a result, many of the state’s claims have gone unchallenged.
But one who does, Michael Shipley, of Liberty, Mo., scored a major victory for prisoners in 2013 when he fought the state’s interpretation of the formula.
Lloyde Cowin had received $16,026 while serving three life sentences for an abduction and murder in Carter County.
The state wanted $60,306 for his incarceration costs, and the judge agreed to it, applying 90 percent of the $16,026, plus any future funds Cowin received.
Shipley challenged the notion that the state could try to draw upon money that Cowin neither had nor was assured of receiving. The Western District Missouri Court of Appeals agreed.
Now, collections must be based only on assets legally identified at the time of the judgment.
The ruling is why someone such as Taylor, who received the $33,989 from his grandfather, isn’t on the hook for the full $181,884 outlined in his court judgment.
With that decision, and a few other key rulings, the state’s MIRA collections have dropped— from the decade’s high of $845,537 in 2007 to last year’s $596,857.
But untouched by the appellate courts is the part that allows the state to bill into the future based on what an inmate has now.
Included is any “stream of income” identified at the time of the judgment, such as regular payments from a qualifying pension and certain trusts.
That’s how Charles Belsher, a retired Department of Transportation worker, ended up responsible for $90,424 in prison costs, plus an “indeterminable” amount in the future, according to the state. He qualified because of $4,000 in a bank account and a $1,100 monthly pension, when his costs were just $4,148. So far, he’s paid $46,159 to the state.
“Typically, the costs of incarceration are far more than any assets they’re ever going to have,” said Shipley. “It’s like getting blood from a turnip.”
Though many of these debts may be ultimately discharged in bankruptcy, he said, that does nothing for someone who leaves prison and “wants to buy an old beater car for $2,000 to get to his job and can’t get a loan because he’s got a big judgment against him.”
Inmates must disclose assets when starting their sentences or risk a penalty at parole.
Those who know better look in advance to place their assets out of reach.
Tom, the retired trucker, learned the trick too late from jailhouse talk.
“Most of them told me I was a dummy,” he recalled, “because I didn’t get everything out of my name before I went in.”
LOSING BY DEFAULT
Ultimately, those hurt most by MIRA may be the ones least equipped to deal with it.
Inmates with access to a lawyer often can reach a settlement for a lesser amount or challenge the finding of the state’s means test. Those with no legal help mostly end up with default judgments, where the claim goes unchallenged. There are no public defenders in civil cases.
Shipley said it could be doubly hard if the court freezes the convict’s assets prior to a hearing. Then there is no money to hire a lawyer, he noted, “and you’re in prison, so what are you going to do?”
White, the Kansas City lawyer, noted, “The people who are able to afford it and can handle it right, they get it taken care of. But the poor guy who is down to all he’s got — he could lose it all and not be able to afford an attorney to protect him.”
He believes prison costs should be addressed at the time of a plea deal, as happenes in federal cases. He said many defense attorneys were unaware of the recovery program and couldn’t warn their clients.
“I know I’ll never have another plea where we won’t be talking about this,” he said.
Alex said letters and phone calls from the attorney general’s office were his first notice, upon finishing his drunken driving sentence in 2013, that a default judgment had been entered against him.
He couldn’t believe it.
Nor could his new attorney, Chris Graville, who said, “I’m a big believer in personal responsibility, don’t get me wrong. But the reality of it is, many of these prisoners are going to get out. So do we as a society have a responsibility to plan for their release? Or do we set them up to fail?”