Use of Early Release to Ease the Financial Burden of Incarceration

March 31, 2023 by Holly J. Ludvigsen

There are currently almost 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, and this country has a higher incarceration rate per capita than any other country. The mass incarceration of Americans, particularly Black and Brown Americans, has reached alarming rates.[1]

While society often discusses the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to incarcerate each inmate every year, this does not fully capture the cost of incarceration.  Money is lost because people who are incarcerated are not working and thus not paying income tax or contributing to the economy through making purchases.  The loved ones of people who are incarcerated who previously relied on the incarcerated person’s income can sometimes be dependent on the state to provide them with assistance, especially when the person who is incarcerated has dependent children.[2]  The cost to society because of incarceration is clearly more significant than most people understand, but the cost to low-income individuals specifically needs to be addressed.

People who are incarcerated earn an average of 13 to 52 cents an hour for their work, and almost 70% of incarcerated workers are not able to afford basic necessities with their prison wages.[3]  Rather than participating in society and working jobs that pay at or above minimum wage and thus contributing to their families’ incomes, people who are incarcerated need their friends and family to send money in order to afford things like phone calls, supplies for writing letters, deodorant, and warm clothes for winter.[4]  Families spend 2.9 billion dollars a year on their incarcerated loved ones, with over half of these families going into debt to afford these costs.[5]  One investigation found relatives of incarcerated individuals missed out on medical care and bill payments in order to assist their incarcerated family members.[6] A report by the Fines and Fees Justice Center found that 65% of families with an incarcerated family member were unable to meet their families basic needs, with 49% struggling to meet basic food needs and 48% struggling to meet basic housing needs due to the costs of incarceration.[7]  Maintaining contact with incarcerated family members caused 34% of families in the study to go into debt to pay for phone calls and visits.[8]

Incarceration clearly places a significant burden on the family members of incarcerated individuals, especially for low-income people.  Many different solutions for mass incarceration have been proposed (decriminalization of various drugs, increased emphasis on education/treatment/rehabilitation, shortening sentences, etc.), but one method of addressing mass incarceration that has come to national attention since the COVID-19 pandemic is home release programs.

Compassionate Release is a form of early release for people who are incarcerated if they are terminally ill, elderly, very sick, or incapacitated, though each jurisdiction that has Compassionate Release handles things slightly differently.[9]  Compassionate Release is not a recent development, but it is rarely used.  At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons decided to use narrower criteria than that set out by the U.S. Sentencing Commission by not having a “catchall” category, and rarely files Compassionate Release motions.[10]

This started to change during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Bureau of Prisons was encouraged to be more permissive in their use of home confinement based on many of the same risk factors considered in typical compassionate release cases.  The federal government passed the CARES Act, which allowed the Bureau of Prisons to review inmates with COVID-19 risk factors and decide if inmates would be appropriate for home confinement.[11]  The Justice Department ordered the release of more than 11,000 vulnerable people in federal prisons and placed them on home confinement because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  17 of these people committed new crimes, only one of which was violent.  This is a 0.15 percent recidivism rate, which is significantly lower than the typical 30-65 percent recidivism rate within three years of release.[12]  A primary concern any time a person is being released from incarceration is the danger they present to society through reoffending, so the low recidivism rates demonstrate that these early release programs are extremely beneficial and do not constitute a significant danger to society.

Instead of spending time in prison, 11,000 people were home with their families, thus greatly reducing the costs of communication and visits.  Many of these people were also able to find work that was safe for them during the pandemic, so they were able to contribute to their family’s income instead of being an expense.  Since incarceration places such a heavy financial burden on the families of incarcerated individuals, in addition to the already heavy emotional burden, early releases would be incredibly financially beneficial for people who are incarcerated and their families.


[1] Prison Policy Initiative, Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022, (last visited Nov 30, 2022).

[2] The Economic Costs of the U.S. Criminal Justice System, AAF, (last visited Jan 18, 2023).

[3] ACLU, Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers | News & Commentary, American Civil Liberties Union (2022), (last visited Jan 18, 2023).

[4] Beth Schwartzapfel for The Marshall Project, Prison Money Diaries: What People Really Make (and Spend) Behind Bars, The Marshall Project, (last visited Jan 18, 2023).

[5] Supra note 2.

[6] Daniel Wagner, Prison bankers cash in on captive customers, Center for Public Integrity (2014), (last visited Jan 18, 2023).

[7] Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families, Fines and Fees Justice Center, (last visited Jan 29, 2023).

[8] Id.

[9] Compassionate Release, FAMM, (last visited Nov 30, 2022).

[10] Federal Compassionate Release Criteria: Which Prisoners Qualify?,

[11] BOP: COVID-19 Home Confinement Information, Frequently Asked Questions, (last visited Jan 29, 2023).

[12] Molly Gill, Thousands were released from prison during covid. The results are shocking., Washington Post (2022), (last visited Jan 29, 2023).