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Congress OKs Fed Cons to Pay Cost of Prison

Congress has approved legislation allowing the Federal Bureau of Prisons to collect "user fees" from federal inmates equal to the costs of a year's incarceration. The Justice Department, which sought the legislation, estimated that about 9 percent of the 30,000 new inmates who enter the prison system each year will be able to pay their cost of incarceration, at least for the first year. Thus, the department said, it may raise up to $48 million a year by forcing inmates to pay for their incarceration.

The provision was signed into law last October as part of the Justice Department's Fiscal Year 1993 appropriations bill. The bill provides that the Attorney General may assess a fee equal to the cost of one year of incarceration (currently estimated at $17,000 to $20,000 per inmate). If an inmate serves 11 months or less, the fee is to be reduced proportionally.

The attorney general was granted discretion to waive or reduce the fee for any inmate who is unable to pay, even under an installment schedule, or in cases where the fee "would unduly burden the defendant's dependents."

Congress specified that any money collected under the inmate user fee program in the current fiscal year be placed in the general U.S. Treasury fund. But starting in Fiscal Year 1994, the funds are to be deposited in the federal prison system's "salaries and expenses" account.

During Congressional hearing on the proposal held last year, Rep. Joseph Early, a Massachusetts Democrat who serves on the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the federal prison system, acknowledged the political appeal of the inmate fee proposal, but questioned its practicality. "It's going to be an easy thing to pass," he said. "I don't know who is going to vote against it. But would it allow you to assess assets of the individual being incarcerated?"

Bureau of Prisons Director J. Michael Quinlan said the details would be worked out in regulations, with authority delegated to each institution's warden to decide whether a given prisoner could pay such a fee. But he noted that the Bureau of Prisons already collects $13 million a year in fines that courts have imposed on prisoners to repay victims, make restitution, or pay alimony. The bureau uses a "carrot-and-stick" to get inmates to cooperate in paying fines, he said, with bargaining chips such as work assignments and preferred housing.

Federal courts already have the authority to impose a prison-related fine during the regular sentencing process, but most judges have not been using that authority, Mr. Quinlan said. The new law carries a stipulation that the Attorney General may not impose a "user fee" on any inmate who already was fined by a judge under those similar provisions.
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