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Michigan Counties Unsuccessful at Collecting Costs of Jail Imprisonment

by Matt Clarke

On September 12, 2007, the Lenawee County Commission became embroiled in a debate over how to collect $6.3 million in outstanding ?room and board? fees from former jail prisoners that had accrued over the past two fiscal years. The county charges $43.28 per jail day, but cuts that fee in half if the debt is paid within 30 days of release.

What?s the problem? Start with the fact that it is generally poor people who spend time in jail rather than being released on bond or paying fines. Mix in the fact that jailing people is the perfect way for them to lose their jobs, and a criminal record is a great method to keep them from finding employment after their release. Factor in substantial court costs, fines and attorney fees, and it is evident to anyone who is not a Lenawee County Commissioner that most released prisoners are in no position to pay $43.28 per diem for back rent for time spent in the local lock-up.

What?s the county?s solution to this pressing problem? Jail accounts clerk Sabrina Martinez has asked former prisoners to collect cans and bottles for the 10-cent deposit and use that money toward their jail bills. After all, we wouldn?t want ex-prisoners using such nickel-and-dime income toward anything unessential ? like food, clothing, housing, child care or medical treatment.

Another approach has been to turn the bills over to the Ann Arbor Credit Bureau (AACB), a collection agency that, with a five to seven percent collection rate, has double the success of the previous collection firm.
Of course that is a very small rate of success, but who cares so long as some of the deadbeat former prisoners are made to pay. AACB also handles jail fee collections for Washtenaw County. From 1999 to 2003, approximately $23,600,000 was billed to 13,800 former Washtenaw County prisoners. The amount collected during that time period was $231,437, or less than one percent.

Lenawee County Commissioner Karol ?K.Z.? Bolton suggested a work program for jail releasees to work off their debts through ?volunteer? labor. Who would house and feed the ?volunteer? work crew, what kind of work they would do and potential liability issues were not addressed.

Martinez suggested that allowing probation officers to accept minimal payments over a long period of time might work. ?One guy took seven years to pay his bill, but he paid it,? she said. That?s a great way to save money. Keep former prisoners on probation ? everyone knows that such supervision doesn?t cost the taxpayers anything ? until the jail bill is paid at the rate of a few dollars a month.

Commissioner Dick Bailey suggested in an angry tone that courts and police should be more selective ? only jailing people with good credit ratings and incomes. Perhaps he was being sarcastic, or perhaps he just didn?t know what to do with poor people who are arrested and convicted.

County Commissioner Jim VanDoren said the jail worked hard to collect on the bills and other counties were in much worse shape. He suggested that state law be changed to allow court-ordered reimbursement of jail costs as a condition of probation. The state legislature has shown little interest in the suggestion. Maybe they realize that, if faced with a non-paying probationer whose term of supervision was about to expire, they would have to either continue the probation until the bill was paid, costing the taxpayers additional money, or jail the person again, which would add to the bill.

It?s a lose-lose situation that will probably never be resolved so long as government officials insist on extorting rent from their impoverished citizens for imprisoning them.

Source: Daily Telegram

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