Daee McKnight has worked hard to prevent others from following the same path he did when he killed another man in the 1980s, spending 17 years in prison for the crime. He was 19 years old at the time.
Even though he was released without parole or supervision in 2005, he and thousands of other current and former incarcerated individuals are paying the price, literally.
Advocates call the provision that requires former inmates to pay at least 50% of any “significant windfall” to the state for the cost of their incarceration overly punitive. They say it prevents individuals from accumulating the wealth needed to live a stable life. It also prevents them from handing down any wealth to their children.
McKnight is now working with teams from Yale and Quinnipiac University’s law schools to bring awareness to the issue and seek legislative change.
“When you are a person who has not been incarcerated, it’s going to have a negative impact on you when someone takes money from you,” McKnight said. “If you are a person who has been incarcerated and struggling, this could cause people to give up and return to a life of crime.”
According to the 1995 law, McKnight or anyone else who is or has been incarcerated is required to turn over at least 50% of the proceeds of any “significant windfall” to the state to pay for their incarceration for up to 20 years after their release.
“Significant windfalls” include lottery winnings, inheritances and money gained from lawsuits, said a spokesperson for state Department of Administrative Services, which is the agency that pursues former and current inmates for the money.
In the past three years, the state has collected $18.4 million from current and former inmates that McKnight and advocates say could be going to families of incarcerated individuals to create a better life that doesn’t include criminal activity. The money goes into the state’s General Fund.
“The law didn’t even exist when I was sentenced,” said McKnight, who now works for Family ReEntry, an organization that helps to break the cycle of crime for formerly incarcerated people to allow them to get a fresh start when they are released. “They can go after the money for 20 years after you are released. They claim it’s not a punishment, but it is.”
The law was created about a decade after McKnight pleaded guilty under the Alford Doctrine to the murder. Under the plea, he did not admit guilt but conceded that there was enough evidence to convict him of the crime. He had no way of knowing that his plea to settle the case would later result in him losing money he won in lawsuits after being injured in two car accidents.
Since McKnight and thousands of others were “grandfathered” into the law, he’s looking for an attorney who will help him sue the state to stop the practice of taking money from former inmates who were sentenced before it was enacted.
“There’s a psychological piece to having a lien over your head for a long period of time, Yale University Law student Camila Reed-Guevara said. “This makes families make decisions about inheritances and insurance that they normally wouldn’t be making but they are concerned it’s going to be seized.”
Although the state contends that the money is only sought from “significant windfalls,” the reality is that the state has been seeking amounts as low as $4,000, which could keep a person from homelessness or help a family with basic needs, Reed-Guevara said.
“These aren’t just the story of individuals, it’s the story of families and communities,” she said. “The people we have interviewed are telling us that this is preventing them from creating opportunities for their families.”
Reed-Guevara is doing research with other students on the impact of the law with the school’s Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law “Pay to Stay” project.
The law hampers people from saving the type of money that would make a difference in their lives, such as providing an education to their children and stable housing, Quinnipiac Law Professor Sarah Russell told the Collateral Consequences subcommittee last month.
“I view this as perpetuating intergenerational poverty,” Russell, who is the director of Quinnipiac’s legal clinic, said. “If you were incarcerated and leaving money to a child, that child has already suffered from your absence and from the absence of your income. But if you want to leave money to them within 20 years of your release, 50% of that will be taken. It also impacts you if you receive an inheritance that could be used to help you get back on your feet. People who have been incarcerated already have challenges.”
The law mostly impacts people of color since they make up between 70 to 80% of the prison population, Russell said. “It certainly has a racial and ethnic disparate impact,” she said. “It’s continuing the cycle of poverty because the look back is such a long time.”
Any money garnered from a lawsuit is to correct an injury, and shouldn’t be considered a “windfall,” Russell and Reed-Guevara said. There are times when the state is moving to attach money that has been won through a lawsuit against the state Department of Correction, to right a wrong the agency committed, they both said.
“We have heard of situations where the state has encouraged people to settle lawsuits against the agency because they said they would take less if it were settled,” Reed-Guevara said.
Russell, who is a member of the Sentencing Commission, is expected to present the issue to the entire commission in November and hopes it will generate a change in the law.
“This is about getting people back on their feet and how you stabilize families,” Russell said. “In the case of someone who has been incarcerated and managed to piece together some money, you are making their children doubly suffer by taking that away from them.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this news story included a misspelling within the name of the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law. We have corrected the error.