Prisons Shouldn't Create Debtors

Giving families the bill when a relative goes to jail is a double punishment.

June 5, 2015
Debt chips

Cross-posted on USA Today

Illinois' Johnnie Melton is no model citizen. By January 2013, he had been convicted on drug-related charges at least three times. But when state officials sued Melton for nearly $20,000 to pay for his "care, custody, treatment or rehabilitation" during 14 months served at the state's Logan Correctional Center, Melton decided to fight the bill. The Fourth District Appellate Court ruled that he must pay the charges and the state took his assets.

Melton's case is an example of how many localities fund their criminal justice systems largely through fees assessed on the incarcerated, the majority of whom are indigent. Earlier this year, revelations that cities like Ferguson, Missouri collect millions in fees from poor citizens sparked a national debate about whether the practice is predatory. But in a new Brennan Center for Justice report, I found that these policies are just as common inside jails and prisons. At least 43 states allow inmates like Melton to be charged for the cost of their own imprisonment and at least 35 states authorize charging inmates for some medical expenses.

Although the pervasiveness of these practices varies by county, a sampling of correctional facility websites provides a good picture. For example, the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio charges $68.76 per day. At that rate, it will cost an inmate more than $25,000 per year to stay in jail. The jail's website states that inmates will receive a bill upon release and even provides a phone number for their pay-to-stay coordinator. The Corrections Center has contracted with Intellitech Corporation for collection services.

This disturbing trend increasingly forces inmates, who usually have no meaningful source of income — and often, their families— to pay for basic services, including meals, clothing, toilet paper, dental and medical co-payments and fees for telephone, video visitation and internet access.

The most often cited rationale for the charges is to offset spiraling incarceration costs. But the simple reality is that imposing fees has had mixed results, at best. Some counties have found that administrative costs are greater than what they would have collected in jail fees. In Fairfield County, Ohio, for example, the jail suspended its pay-to-stay program in 2012. They concluded that collection agencies were so ineffective in collecting fees owed that it wasn't worth the cost.

As policymakers recoiled at tax increases to sustain a booming prison population, the burden to raise revenue gradually shifted toward defendants and inmates. The country's criminal justice costs — mostly policing, jails, prisons, and courts — rose from $35 billion in 1982 to more than $265 billion in 2012 — an increase of more than 650%.

So if the justice system needs the money so badly, why is it such bad policy to charge those, like Johnnie Melton, who use it? Because experts estimate that at least 80% of incarcerated individuals are indigent. And, in most cases, it is inmates' families who end up paying their criminal justice fines and fees. This creates a double penalty. Not only does the family suffer from the loss of income from the inmate, but their expenses increase with the addition of criminal justice fees.

Every aspect of the criminal justice process has become ripe for charging a fee. In fact, an estimated 10 million people owe more than $50 billion in debt. And successful re-entry into society can be nearly impossible for former inmates who, already facing the difficulty of securing gainful employment with a criminal record, are burdened with immense debt after completing their prison stay. In some places, failure to pay the debt can lead to re-incarceration — creating a cycle reminiscent of the debtors' prisons many believe are a relic of the past.

This debtor-creating system needs reform.

First and foremost, jails and prisons should revisit collection practices. Once inmates leave correctional custody, accumulated debts create prolonged involvement with the system. Chasing down formerly incarcerated people, the majority of whom are poor, to collect these debts is often counterproductive. Collection efforts frequently cost more than jurisdictions recoup in revenue.

Policymakers should also limit the excessive leeway for correctional facilities and sheriffs to charge exorbitant fees — such as the $45 per day charged to inmates at the Duchesne County Jail in Utah. State and federal lawmakers should bolster indigency waivers to ensure those with the least means won't be subjected to charges they can never pay. Lawmakers should also set caps on criminal justice debt, so a prison stay for a petty crime can't take away any possibility of a second chance.

Our nation's high incarceration rates arose from deliberate policy choices. An unintended consequence of the dependence on incarceration has been the burden on state and local budgets. It is time for us to take a collective breath and think carefully about how to fund the nation's jails and prisons in a way that reflects values of fairness, equality, and the real purpose of punishment.

(Photo: Flickr/MikkoSarri)