As the $1,400 stimulus checks from the American Rescue Plan continue to go out, many state governments are dealing with the question of whether the checks can go to prisoners or other convicted criminals.
The legislation, as written, distributes the checks to all eligible American citizens, and does not prohibit them from being distributed to those who have been convicted of crimes.
The state attorney general of Alabama, and a local prosecutor in that state, have announced a push to take the stimulus checks away from prisoners, and distribute that money to victims of crimes.
“That money should automatically be seized and given to victims of crime. That money was given to individuals to stimulate the economy. They can’t stimulate the economy when they are in prison,” Ashley Rich, the district attorney of Mobile County, said, per WTVY. According to that report, 1,918 inmates in Alabama had received stimulus checks, totaling about $2.3 million, as of the start of April.
Legislators in Missouri, meanwhile, are pushing to seize stimulus checks from prisoners who owe restitution, while Michigan has seized checks from a small number of prisoners.
Is this legal?
Last year, after the passage of the CARES Act and its stimulus checks, the IRS first said that prisoners could receive the checks, before backtracking, according to The Washington Post. This led to a class action lawsuit by a group of incarcerated people. Then, Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the withholding of the checks was “arbitrary and capricious,” ordering the distribution of the stimulus checks to proceed.
The Trump-era IRS appealed, but Hamilton again ruled that the checks be distributed.
“Hopefully this is the last of it,” Kelly Dermody, an attorney representing the prisoners, told the Post. “They have already wasted a lot of taxpayer money chasing after checks that were previously properly issued, misleading correctional authorities about eligibility, and filing brief after brief in court trying to stop our fellow Americans from getting stimulus money.”
Once the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year, the issue came up again. Two Republican senators, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, proposed an amendment preventing the checks from going to prisoners, but it failed. Cotton went on to say, per Politifact, that “Senate Democrats just voted to give stimulus checks to criminals in prison… They haven’t lost their jobs, they aren’t worried about paying rent or buying groceries.”
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, part of the Democratic Senate leadership, defended the payments.
"Given the stark racial disparities in our criminal justice system, this would cause the most harm to Black and brown families and communities already harmed by mass incarceration," Durbin said on the Senate floor, per Politico. "Children should not be forced to go hungry because a parent is incarcerated.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.