Posted August 25, 20219:24 am
The rise in U.S. poverty during COVID-19 would have been even more severe if the federal government hadn’t issued Economic Impact Payments (EIP, or stimulus checks). Some people woke up one day and saw the EIP was added to their bank account. Others received a check in the mail. Many who were incarcerated, however, never saw the money they were owed.
“We’ve worked really hard to advocate for this population since October 2020,” says Jennifer Kinsley Smith, Esq., an attorney in Legal Aid’s Health and Opportunity Practice Group who has been trying to make it easier for people who are incarcerated to access their EIP.
In April 2020, the U.S. Attorney General said the only reason an EIP payment could be garnished was to pay child support. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction soon after made a ruling that inmates could only receive $500 of their EIP, in direct violation of the Attorney General’s order. Six months later, in October 2020, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) declared that incarcerated people were not eligible to get their EIP at all.
A lawsuit was filed in California that contested this ruling (Scholl v. Mnuchin), and the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the IRS cannot exclude otherwise eligible people in prison from receiving their EIP.
“After that ruling, there was widespread concern and confusion about how people inside of carceral facilities could get access to their payments,” says Jenn. “Incarcerated people had to fill out a specific form and send it to the IRS by November 4. Time was of the essence: the IRS had to mail every inmate the forms by October 27. The problem was, mail systems in prisons take a long time; you have to buy a stamp from the commissary, prepare the mail, then it gets inspected, then it goes to the mail room. It was just not feasible that all of the pieces would come together on time for people to get the money they deserved.”
Jenn and her colleagues on Legal Aid’s Reentry Committee reached out to the Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to work together on an advocacy plan. Jenn also contacted the law firm that had filed the California suit, Lieff Cabraser, for counsel and assistance.
Thanks to Legal Aid’s leadership and cross-organizational collaboration, the OJPC filed a lawsuit relative to the improper garnishment of EIPs on behalf of incarcerated Ohio residents against the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in the spring of 2021. The matter is now pending before the Tenth District Court of Appeals.
“It was a lot of work to identify the problems and figure out who we could partner with really quickly,” says Jenn. “It’s a testament to the importance of partnerships.”