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What Would Lindsay Lohan Pay?

A plan in California to charge inmates for their stay in local jails is short-sighted and fiscally insensible.

  • Roopal Patel
  • Meghna Philip
December 22, 2011

If Lindsay Lohan can afford to pay more than $100 per night to stay in jail, so should anyone else who gets in trouble with the law, at least according to one California county official, Jeff Stone.

Last week, Riverside County, California initiated Stone’s plan to charge inmates $142 per night for being incarcerated in local jails. This is only slightly less than a one-night stay in Riverside’s finest hotel, which runs $190.

This jail stay fee is a short-sighted, fiscally insensible policy. The vast majority of those incarcerated will not be able to pay the fee. Celebrities like Lindsay Lohan are hardly representative of the majority of California’s jailed or imprisoned people, who are disproportionately poor. Stone himself has estimated that only about 25 percent of the county’s prisoners would be able to pay anything at all if charged this new fee. The Sheriff’s Deputy Chief of neighboring San Bernardino County said Stone’s estimate was high.

Under the ordinance, the county is allowed to garnish wages, put liens on people’s homes, and charge parents if their children are jailed. Such financial consequences will push already economically struggling individuals further into poverty and have detrimental effects on the rehabilitation and re-entry of those involved in Riverside County’s criminal justice system.

In addition, there is evidence that instituting such fees may actually result in a net loss for state and local governments. In 2010, an investigative commission in Massachusetts demonstrated that the costs of adding a new jail fee in that state would far outweigh the benefits. The commission determined that the best fee system must track and determine an inmate’s ability to pay, and that adequate development of tracking systems would be very costly. Considering the limited revenue that could be generated from an overwhelmingly indigent inmate population, as well as the socioeconomic costs of collecting from such a population, the commission decided not to implement the new jail fee. Such detailed cost-benefit analyses must be conducted before adding new fees that could be detrimental to both local budgets and inmates’ rehabilitative prospects. Unfortunately, Riverside County has neglected such a process and implemented a fee that will likely cost more to track and enforce than any revenue it generates.

Riverside County’s new policy illustrates how broken California’s criminal justice system is. In May, the Supreme Court found California’s state prison overcrowding unconstitutional, ordering it to downsize by 30,000 prisoners. In response, the state legislature approved a realignment plan to shift thousands of prisoners to local jails, stretching local resources to the limit and resulting in absurd policies such as Riverside’s new pay-to-stay fee.

But shifting the state prison population to local jails does not remedy the problem of prison overcrowding. California must focus its immediate energy on better long-term solutions to address the problems that led to its current state of overincarceration, such as scaling back its Three Strikes law, the toughest in the country. (Advocates are gearing up for a proposed ballot initiative to roll back the law next year.)

In the meantime, local jurisdictions must institute reasoned impact analysis when considering placing new debt burdens on the overwhelmingly poor population involved in the criminal justice system.