Dear Straight Dope:
What happens to a person's belongings when he or she is sentenced to serve time in prison? It appears that some white-collar criminals (like the Enron crowd) are given time to settle their affairs. How about everyone else? What happens to your pets, finances, house, car, and other belongings if you are sent to the can right after trial and you don't have any family members to help you out?
Odds are that by the time you get convicted and sentenced you’ll already have dealt with whatever you needed to deal with however you could – in 2002 the median time from arrest to conviction in state courts was 184 days, while in federal criminal jury trials in 2004 the median time from case filing to disposition was over a year.
Around 40 percent of defendants get released at some point between arrest and sentencing, typically by posting bond. The other 60 percent stay behind bars the whole time. Generally, those charged with white-collar crimes are way more likely to get bail – over 70 percent of them do. Defendants who get out have more of an opportunity to terminate leases, assign property (and sometimes legal status) to people who (they hope) can be trusted, etc; those who don’t often just have to let relatives, friends, roommates, and other associates sort it all out.
To even have a shot at getting time following sentencing to settle your affairs before turning yourself in – this option is called self-surrender – you need to (a) get the judge to set bail, and (b) be able to post it. These often are two different things: in 2002, for example, 36 percent of the federal defendants who were detained until trial had in fact been granted bail but for whatever reason were unable to satisfy the conditions. Few of such people, we’ll assume, are wealthy, and thus high-income white-collar types are overrepresented among those who walk around free until their stretch actually begins.
As you might imagine, jurisdictions vary in their willingness to grant the self-surrender option. For example, the superior court in Alpine County, California, makes clear in its rules that defendants should bring a toothbrush to the sentencing hearing:
Defendants appearing for Judgment & Sentence/Probation shall be prepared to be remanded into custody in the event such is ordered by the court. Delayed self-surrender is disfavored and shall be permitted only upon a showing of good cause.
There are two standards for self-surrender in the federal system, one for run-of-the-mill prisoners and one for the more high-risk folks. A comparatively low-stakes offender hoping to win self-surrender rights need only show "clear and convincing evidence that [he or she] is not likely to flee or pose a danger to the safety of any other person or the community if released."
But in high-risk cases – e.g., those involving drug offenses, violent crimes, and other convictions that can result in a sentence of ten years or longer – there’s a strong presumption against letting the defendant remain free after after sentencing; to obtain self-surrender he’s got to show exceptional circumstances (as well as the unlikelihood of his endangering anyone or fleeing), which is hard to do.
Imprisonment isn’t a defense to a suit for breach of contract – from credit card companies, for example. That said, prisoners with long-term sentences don’t tend to get sued by their creditors. While such prisoners are sitting ducks for lawsuits because they can’t avoid being served papers and they’re often unable to defend themselves, they’re also unlikely to have assets from which the creditor could collect a judgment. One ex-prisoner I talked to said his credit actually improved in prison: the statute of limitations for enforcing a debt is usually three to six years, depending on the jurisdiction, and debts can’t be included on credit reports after more than seven years. Prisoners with financial lives to manage can assign power of attorney to someone on the outside.
Inmates usually aren’t allowed to have money or credit cards while in prison. The facility usually maintains accounts for them, allowing them to buy things from the canteen with money earned by working prison jobs or provided by friends or relatives. They’re also allowed to receive items ordered from certain approved catalog companies.
My ex-prisoner consultant also pointed out another property-related problem experienced by prisoners: they accumulate belongings in prison, but it’s actually very difficult to take those belongings out with you upon release – not because it’s legally prohibited, but because the guards and inmates alike frown on it.
Thanks to Straight Dope Message Board members fifty-six, Little Nemo, and Qadgop the Mercotan for answering my interminable questions.
Murray, JaneAnne, “Smoothing the Path From Corporate Life to Prison Life”, New York Law Journal, 12-13-2006
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