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Pay-to-Stay Jail Programs Growing

Due in part to stressed government budgets, “pay-to-stay” fees imposed on prisoners in county jails are becoming more prevalent. Two counties, one in Ohio and the other in California, are now collecting incarceration costs from detainees.

After Keller Blackburn became prosecutor for Athens County, Ohio, the county achieved its largest monthly total collected under its pay-to-stay jail program. In January 2012 it collected $23,927 from prisoners, which exceeded the $20,739 collected for the entire previous year. The money is paid into the county’s general fund.

Blackburn “has made it a priority to hold defendants accountable for their actions and to reduce the burden on the public treasury by ordering defendants to pay for their own incarceration,” his office said in a press release. He later clarified that the “pay-to-stay” requirement applies only to “convicted felons” and not “defendants,” as the amount each prisoner must pay is determined during plea negotiations in their criminal cases.

Prisoners who are incarcerated under the jurisdiction of Athens County are housed at the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail, which provides 76 beds for the county under a contract worth $1.4 million annually, or $18,615 per day, which works out to about $51 per diem per detainee.

Riverside County, California also has decided to recoup its incarceration costs from prisoners. Around 60,000 people cycle through the county’s jails each year, and County Supervisor Jeff Stone proposed the idea based on estimated annual revenue of $3-5 million. The approved pay-to-stay policy charges prisoners $142.42 per day – more than local hotels.

A case-by-case review of a prisoner’s ability or inability to pay has to be made. “In order to be reimbursed, the court must determine that the defendant has the ability to pay all or a portion of these costs,” county counsel Pamela Walls wrote in a legal memo. “Many defendants who are incarcerated lack the financial means, after the payments of fines and penalties, to reimburse these costs.” The court will also weigh the prisoner’s family support obligations against the jail fees.

Such pay-to-stay programs are not popular with everyone. “Prison[ers’] rights groups underscore that it’s the relatives of the inmates that end up shouldering this high financial burden. These families – often disproportionately women – are typically already impoverished and struggling to make ends meet,” a post on the Real Cost of Prisons blog site noted. “Critics of the pay-to-stay system argue that in essence, the government is seizing the assets of some of the poorest families in the country.”

Will Matthews, a spokesman for the ACLU, pointed out that most prisoners are indigent, thus “it begs the question as to how they’re going to be paying” the fees, and whether they (ironically) will be “forced into jail for failure to pay their fine.” He added that “[p]rograms like this certainly do raise very serious Constitutional questions. We’re seeing it increasingly in jurisdictions around the country.”

Indeed, PLN has previously reported on pay-to-stay fees that have been imposed by jails in Idaho, Ohio, Oregon, Illinois and various other states, with mixed results. [See, e.g.: PLN, March 2012, p.43; Sept. 2010, p.30; July 2010, p.1]. In Michigan, a bill signed into law in May 2012 allows counties to charge convicted prisoners for the cost of their incarceration. However, for a pay-to-stay program at a Massachusetts jail that didn’t work out as expected, see the article on page 30 of the January 2013 issue of PLN.

Sources: CNN, Athens News, Lansing State Journal

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