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Prisons Shouldn’t Create Debtors

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

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)