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Pay-to-Stay Fees Impoverish Prisoners, Increase Recidivism

Wisconsin Watch, a watchdog group, said that 53 of the 60 investigated counties in Wisconsin charge some type of fee to persons navigating the corrections system -- from booking fees, to room and board, medical, dental, ankle monitors and more.

While the concept of charging fees has been around for a long time, the 1990s saw a number of states drastically adding more fees. At least 40 states currently charge some daily room and board to prisoners. Proponents say that it is the criminal that created the need for confinement, therefore it should be the criminal that needs to pay. Proponents also argue that it serves as a deterrent to committing crime.

Opponents state that factors driving criminality are much more complex. Prison Policy Initiative reports that the yearly average income of arrested individuals is around $19,000, well below the poverty level.

Executive director of Safe & Just Michigan, John Cooper, states that poverty and lack of opportunity drive many to become involved with the criminal justice system. “Because pay-to-stay exacerbates the underlying causes of involvement in the justice system, there is a good argument that it undermines public safety,” Cooper stated.

The nonprofit Alabama Appleseed published a 2018 report, which states that 38% of those surveyed committed a second crime to pay off their fines and fees incurred while in jail. University of Washington sociology professor Alexes Harris said it was a vicious cycle. “If I could create a perfect system to maintain inequality, create inequality and sustain it over time, this is the system. The process perfectly labels, stigmatizes, financially burdens and imposes further legal consequences to poor people.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that excessive state or federal fines may violate the Eighth Amendment, though they did not define what constituted “excessive.” Justice Clarence Thomas compared pay-to-stay fees to vagrancy fines used during the Civil War to re-enslave freed men. “The right against excessive fines traces its lineage back in English law nearly a millennium, and … has been consistently recognized as a core right worthy of constitutional protection,” he wrote.

District Court Judge Lynn Adelman ruled that Wisconsin’s pay-to-stay fees did not violate the state’s rule against punishing a person before they were convicted. A county may assess fees to help maintain jails as long as those fees do not exceed the actual costs of care and custody of the individual.

Detainees and prisoners can be assessed fees in many different ways: booking fees, room and board, phone calls, electronic monitoring, medical co-pay, drug testing, etc. A person could owe thousands of dollars after just a short stay. Each type of fee can vary from county to county. Booking fees run from $5 to $50; electronic monitoring anywhere between $15 and $35 per day.

Wisconsin Watch found the average pay-to-stay cost was around $13 per day. With an average stay of 25 days, the costs came to $325 of added expense per person.

Some activists contend that lawmakers are beginning to realize the negative factors of the pay-to-stay system, and trends are beginning to change. Senator Holly Mitchell introduced legislation to stop all incarceration fees in the state of California, and San Francisco County is thought to be the first county in the United States to eliminate these fees. Missouri has ruled that a person cannot be incarcerated over failure to pay previous incarceration fees. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu signed a bill in July 2020 repealing that state’s pay-to-stay laws. 


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