Forcing prisoners to pay for their own incarceration has become a national trend. In the summer of 2003 the Minnesota legislature followed suit, enacting legislation allowing counties to implement so called pay-to-stay programs.
As a number of Minnesota counties can attest, however, these programs are rarely cost-effective. Olmstead County was able to collect only 2% of the $546,000 billed to prisoners in the first four months of its program.
Even then the county doled out $13,000 in operating costs to collect $7,261 in fees. The county is now attempting to curb costs by eliminating its sliding scale fee of up to $70 and implementing a flat $25 fee. "I think the public needs to understand that there is a good lesson here," said Olmstead County Commissioner Paul Wilson. "Even with the best of intentions you can't get blood from a turnip."
But some counties are still trying. Like Olmstead, Sherburne County has also collected only about 2% of the boarding fees charged in the first year, but officials there are not dissuaded. "A dollar derived from people who pay to stay is a dollar that taxpayers don't have to contribute," said Chief Deputy Scott Gudmundson. "Certainly it's worth it. If it's a buck, it's a buck." Apparently it doesn't matter to Gudmundson if it costs $2 to collect it.
Some cash-strapped counties have resorted to unorthodox methods of collecting fees. Several counties have hired collection agencies. Prisoners at the Dakota County Jail receive a flyer that screams "Pay to Stay Special!!!" and instructs them to contact a jail official to "find out your special rate." Prisoners settling up within seven days of being freed receive a 25% discount.
Counties have long saddled prisoners with a variety of fees. Charging for room and board is just the latest trend. Sadly, prisoners are typically the very ones who can least afford such fees. "I had many homeless clients, people sleeping under highway bridges," said former Hennepin County public defender, John Stuart, now Minnesota's chief public defender. "How they are expected to come up with money to pay a booking fee, a jail fee, a probation fee and a law library fee is beyond me."
Readers should note that previous issues of PLN have reported successful class action suits challenging some county jail attempts to impose booking fees on arrested prisoners. See index for cases.
Sources: Startribune.com, Associated Press
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