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Pay-to-Stay Jails Unsuccessful in Ohio

by David M. Reutter

Part of the legacy of the punitive criminal justice philosophy of the 1990s is pay-to-stay incarceration, which involves jails charging prisoners booking fees and per-diem fees. [See: PLN, July 2010, p.10].

The rhetoric behind pay-to-stay programs is that it is wrong for criminals to be “rewarded” with free room and board while their victims suffer and the public struggles to fund overcrowded prisons and jails.

The concept has turned out to be a huge flop in Ohio, often costing more than it returns to county coffers. Several factors have contributed to this failure, notably the fact that most people who end up in jail are poor and can’t afford to pay.

Another factor was an Ohio federal court’s finding that it was unconstitutional to impose pay-to-stay fees on prisoners who had not been convicted. That ruling required Hamilton County officials to refund about $1 million in jail fees and pay $150,000 for a prisoner education program after the county was sued in 2000. [See: PLN, Aug. 2003, p.20; June 2002, p.18].

The following year Butler County, Ohio was sued. That litigation settled when county officials agreed to return $63,846.37 to 2,431 current and former prisoners. [See: PLN, Aug. 2003, p.21]. When the county failed to add 10 percent interest to the refund checks as required by the settlement, the court ordered an additional $5,000 to be paid to the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati.

Extreme budget cuts caused Hamilton County to resurrect its pay-to-stay policy in 2008, but it limited the program to a $40 booking fee imposed on convicted prisoners sentenced to jail. Through January 31, 2010 the county had collected $402,000 in fees – well below the $1.65 million annual revenue predicted by the sheriff.

Clermont County Sheriff A.J. Rodenberg said the pay-to-stay program was more trouble than it’s worth. “A complete failure is the best way to describe it,” he observed. “When it came time to collect the pay-for-stay, it ended up costing almost as much if not more to run the program.”

The Clermont County jail now collects only small co-payments from prisoners for medical and dental visits, and for over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin and antacids.

Some officials still believe that jails should generate money. “We are looking at any way we can to have some sort of revenue from the jail,” said Major Norman Lewis, who served as warden of Butler County’s jail in 2000 when it operated a pay-to-stay program. “If we can do this legally, we’ll look at it. If it’s practical, we’ll implement it.”

The Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio (CCNO), which houses prisoners for five counties and the City of Toledo, implemented a pay-to-stay program on November 2, 2009. The jail assesses a “reception fee” of $100 plus a per-diem fee of $67.77, saying it “recognizes the importance of offender accountability, the cost of incarceration and its increasing tax burden on the citizens of Northwest Ohio.”

CCNO has contracted with a private company, Intellitech Corp., to collect the fees. Pre-trial detainees who are found not guilty can receive a refund of any fees taken from their jail accounts.


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