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New York Jail “Incarceration Cost” Charges Enjoined

by John E. Dannenberg

The Supreme Court of Nassau County granted an Article 78 petition against Nassau County that enjoined it from charging non-indigent prisoners a “per diem” incarceration fee, thereby voiding Title 21 and 21-A of the Miscellaneous Laws of Nassau County (2006).

The New York State Commission of Correction petitioned the court under Correction Law § 46(4) and Civil Practice Law. Article 78 for an order directing jail officials to cease, charging or collecting incarceration costs from prisoners or former prisoners at the Nassau County Correctional Center. These charges, amounting to $40 per day (exclusive of food and medical costs), were deemed by Nassau County to be only a per diem “administrative fee.” However, New York Correctional Law § 500-n proscribes levying unlawful fees upon prisoners. At issue was whether § 500-n narrowly applied only to bribery and extortion, or whether its reach more broadly covered any charges levied upon prisoners. County officials argued that “unlawful” fees encompassed only those taxed outside the auspices of any duly-enacted law. They also pointed to §§ 500-d and 500-h which required the county to provide food and medical care at county expense, but was silent as to housing costs. It was that’ silence that the county transmogrified into a license to charge prisoners for anything that was not food or medical related.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It held that “law” as used in § 500-n meant State law and restricted that section’s interpretation to just what it said, which would not permit negative inferences grounded in silence. Otherwise, the court opined, “it would permit oppressive or absurd results, such as the collection of fees for an inmate’s release.”

The court found that the State statute prohibited the charging or collection of fees from inmates for any incarceration-related costs, except as provided by State law. The county’s practice violated this prohibition. Accordingly, the court ruled that State law § 500-n was superior to county laws Title 21 and 21-A and ordered Nassau County to “cease and refrain” from enforcing them. The court further ruled that Article 78 was a proper legal vehicle to challenge the constitutionality of a statute even if only declaratory relief was sought,’ as here. See: New York State Commission of Correction v. Reilly, Nassau County No. 003074-07 (2007) [Order posted on PLN’s website].
(381 words)

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New York State Commission of Correction v. Reilly

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