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Even after leaving prison, most ex-offenders still carry a ball and chain: debt.

About 650,000 prisoners walk out the jailhouse doors each year. Most owe money to a variety of creditors, and their offender status limits their means to repay.  If you or a loved one needs to rebuild after incarceration, know your options and get the necessary help. With guidance and perseverance, you can deal with that debt.

Bars of balances
"I owed $70,000 when I left and still owe money," says Larry Lawton, who was released in 2007 after serving 11 years for racketeering. "If I didn't have a support system, I don't know how I could have dealt with it."

Lawton is the founder of the Reality Check Program, which helps teens and young adults make better lifestyle choices. He believes post-prison debt is perilous to the ex-offender and society alike. "A kid gets out of prison with debt, but he can't get a job so he can't repay it," says Lawton. "He may really want to do right, but how can he? He's almost forced to commit more crimes."

"Repaying Debt," a 2007 report by the Council of State Governments' Justice Center, found that "people released from prisons and jails typically must make payments to a host of agencies, including probation departments, courts and child support enforcement offices." Three-fourths of those owing child support, restitution and supervision fees have difficulty paying these debts.

Legal liabilities are not all the formerly incarcerated usually face. The report acknowledges but doesn't measure other balances "commonly owed but not explicitly part of a sentence imposed by a criminal court, such as transportation and housing payments or consumer debt."

According to those who work with ex-offenders, the cumulative financial burden they shoulder is often overwhelming. "Unpaid credit card debt, personal loans from a bank or credit union that have been sold and resold, car repossessions, mortgages that got behind, student loans, back taxes," are all common, says Todd Christensen. As director of education for the credit counseling organization Debt Reduction Services, out of Boise, Idaho, Christensen provides fundamental financial education classes in a local release program and says, "They owe everybody."

Barriers to getting ahead
Repaying debt when you're employed and have a strong family, a good education and are emotionally stable can be hard enough. Doing so without those advantages -- a situation most former prisoners face -- can make repaying debt feel hopeless.

A big hurdle is simply securing a legitimate income source. The national unemployment rate hit 9.5 percent in July of 2010, and with millions looking for work, the competition is fierce.  Add a criminal record and damaged credit report to a resume and employment prospects dwindle.

In 2003, Mark O'Hara (who asked that his real name be withheld to protect his privacy) was convicted of mail and wire fraud, and was recently released with a $100,000 restitution tab. Though he needs to make good on the bill, he wonders how to do so without a job. "Very few companies will even talk to convicted felons, let alone consider hiring them for a position of trust," says O'Hara.

Minimum wage jobs are usually the only options available, but those paychecks are often quickly eroded. Most states can garnish 35 percent of one's wages for legal fines and fees, and up to 65 percent for back child support. Little is left to pay remaining debt and basic living expenses.

An ex-offender's debt and unemployment carries a heavy psychological weight, says Lawton: "They are already so behind, so give up and and say 'Forget it, I can't pay this debt back.' They get bitter ... They go back to crime." The Justice Center report supports Lawton's perspective, concluding that financial pressures and paycheck garnishment resulting from unpaid debt "can increase participation in the underground economy and discourage legitimate employment."

A rapidly evolving society presents yet another significant problem. "If you've been imprisoned for a number of years, a lot has changed," says Jeffery Ian Ross, co-author of "Beyond Bars: Rejoining Society after Prison" and associate professor of criminology at the University of Baltimore.  "Before you went in, credit reports may not have been as important as they are today. Now more and more employers and landlords pull them."

Overcoming the obstacles
Prioritizing obligations is the first step toward gaining control. You can quickly end up back behind bars if you don't pay your legal fees, fines and child support arrearage. Avoid restitution and you risk angering your parole officer, who may not go to bat for you because of it.

As for consumer debt, pay close attention to your state's statute of limitations for collection law. If you can't be sued for repayment, you can relax and concentrate on balances that take precedence.

Re-entry programs can help you find a job as well as provide debt and financial advocacy. "Most communities have them, and they can guide you to credit counseling agencies, and where to go for child support and other debt reduction help," says Sarah Walker, chief operating officer for 180 Degrees, a re-entry program based in Minneapolis. "There is an increased awareness that if people are leaving with unbearable debt, they won't be able to succeed in the community. Because of that they're increasingly incorporating financial literacy and assistance in their programs."

Indeed, money management and debt-repayment assistance play key roles to an ex-offender's personal success, and that includes joining the banking system to borrow beneficially. "Credit and legitimate debt is part of the healing process a former inmate will try to regain as part of a normal life," contends O'Hara.

With those goals in mind, re-entry programs also help ex-offenders obtain and improve their credit reports. "Providing the knowledge and resources is empowering," says Christensen. "I can see it in their eyes and hear it in their questions. It's a huge step for them."

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