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August 13, 2004 - The New York Times (NY)

Many Local Officials Now Make Inmates Pay Their Own Way

By Fox Butterfield

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

MOUNT CLEMENS, Mich. - Crime doesn't pay, but criminals just might.

That is what more and more local governments are hoping, as they grapple with soaring prison populations and budget pressures.

To help cover the costs of incarceration, corrections officers and politicians are more frequently billing inmates for their room and board, an idea popular with voters.

Here in suburban Macomb County, 25 miles north of Detroit, Sheriff Mark Hackel has one of the most successful of these programs in the nation. Last year, the sheriff's department collected nearly $1.5 million in what are being called "pay to stay" fees from many of the 22,000 people who spent time in the county jail.

Inmates are billed for room and board on a sliding scale of $8 to $56 a day, depending on ability to pay. When they are released, the sheriff's office will go to court to collect the unpaid bills, seizing cars or putting some inmates back in jail. The wife of one inmate, a Chrysler truck factory worker who is serving half a year for drunk driving, dropped off a check for $7,212 this week to cover part of his bill, the largest single amount ever collected by the sheriff.

Though the idea is not new - and in fact federal prisons adopted a similar policy years ago that has fallen into disuse - the squeeze on local budgets in recent years has propelled more local officials to assess incarceration fees. In all, more than half of states collect some sort of fees in their prisons, according to the American Correctional Association.

But the fees raise thorny ethical and constitutional issues, say advocates of prisoner rights and some other corrections experts. The costs place an unfair burden on a population that is almost by definition impoverished, making it harder for inmates to get back on their feet after release, some groups argue. Others contend that the fees deprive inmates of due process or constitute cruel and unusual punishment. In a few cases, courts have sided with the inmates on specific issues.

Collecting fees is also an entirely different matter from levying them. Some places profess so much difficulty that they have concluded the administrative costs outweigh the benefits. Even if the programs bring in revenue, there may be other costs.

"The simple, stark truth is that most inmates are not drug kingpins with lots of assets," said Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general. "In some cases, seizing assets may be counterproductive because it will interfere with their rehabilitation."

More than 40 states have enacted legislation allowing their jails to charge fees, according to a survey by the Jail Information Center of the National Institute of Corrections, the research arm of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Not all those states have begun collecting fees.

There are no national data on how much is being collected, reflecting the patchwork of policies, but fees are being levied for booking and processing and co-payments on medical treatment as well as room and board.

The New Jersey Legislature is considering a proposal by the state's corrections commissioner, Devon Brown, to allow the state to collect up to $28,000 a year, the full cost of a year in prison. And the Indianapolis City-County Council is debating a proposal to collect $30 a day from inmates to recoup the cost of housing.

New York generally charges only those inmates in work-release programs, taking a small part of their wages. Connecticut enacted a law in 1998 to charge for the cost of incarceration, and has collected $1.5 million in the last four years.

"I think these fees are an easy political sell, but they are a chimera," said Pat Nolan, the president of Justice Fellowship, which describes itself as an organization that works with government officials to refashion the criminal justice system in line with biblical principles. Mr. Nolan, a former Republican leader of the California Legislature, served two years in federal prison for racketeering in connection with campaign fund-raising.

"The fees are sold with the idea that they will help offset the costs of incarceration, but practically they don't bring in much revenue," Mr. Nolan said. "And then when these inmates come out, they have these huge bills, which puts them in a further hole, making it harder for them to get a car or decent housing."

Some fees have been successfully challenged. In 2002, a federal court forced a sheriff in Cincinnati to refund more than $1 million in room fees from people who had been detained in jail but had not been convicted, saying the collection from them was a violation of due process. In Massachusetts, a judge ruled this month that an old state law made it illegal for a sheriff to collect room and board from inmates there.

Where money is collected, it makes only a slight dent in prison costs. Even in Macomb County, Sheriff Hackel says that the $1.5 million collected is small given his jail's annual operating cost of $38 million. The program to collect the bills costs $120,000 a year, said Michelle Sanborn, the jail administrator.

"But the fees still bring in a substantial amount of money, and the public loves them," Sheriff Hackel said. "What we say is, 'Why should we as taxpayers have to pay the whole cost of incarcerating these people who break the law?' "

Some other counties that charge for incarceration have found that the costs of collecting exceed revenue.

The jail for Lexington, Ky., and surrounding Fayette County charges a $20 booking and administrative fee but not a daily fee, said Donald Leach, the senior administrative officer for the jail. "It's a great platform issue for people running for sheriff to impose these fees," Mr. Leach said. "But it's my experience that very few jails that charge a per diem make any money."

The inmates, he said, quickly learn not to put money into their jail commissary accounts because the jail would debit the accounts to pay the fees. The money usually comes from their pockets at the time of arrest, from friends and relatives, and in some prisons from work programs.

"I think a jail that collects 10 percent of its fees is doing very well," Mr. Leach said.

Hugh Graf, a spokesman for the Broward County Sheriff's Department in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said that state law authorized the county to collect a $10 booking fee and a $3 daily subsistence fee, but that the sheriff's department had never put a lien on a released inmate's property or tried to collect unpaid bills.

"The idea of going after overdue fees is less cost-effective than just eating the costs," Mr. Graf said.

Back in Macomb County, Ms. Sanborn says it was hard to track down a former inmate who owed for room and board, and even after finding him, it could be hard to prove that he had assets. Her office subpoenas an offender to show up in court with copies of financial records.

"If they don't show up for the subpoena," Ms. Sanborn said, "the judge issues a bench warrant for their arrest, and we can pick them up and put them back in jail. Miraculously, the money usually appears."

Not surprisingly, inmates in Macomb County are more than a little irritated at being told to pay for lodging in a double bunk in a 7-by-13-foot cell, and a menu of 2,800 calories a day that typically includes a turkey sandwich and soup for lunch.

DeJuan C. Hunter, an 18-year-old from Detroit who is in the Macomb County jail awaiting trial on charges of receiving and concealing stolen property, said that he had little money when he was arrested and that the jail took $12 out of his account for a booking fee. "I couldn't buy toothpaste or deodorant," he said.

Mr. Hunter said he did not have money to buy stamps, so he could not write to his mother to ask for money.

"I had to wait three weeks till a friend got out and told my mother," Mr. Hunter said. "This is unconstitutional. They are taking my money before I've been tried and convicted."

As a pretrial detainee, Mr. Hunter is not being assessed for room and board, but if he is convicted, he will be billed for all his days of detention.

Gary Kervin, 44, was sentenced to 30 days in the Macomb jail for failure to pay child support and had a copy of a court order to pay $20 a day for each of his days in the jail.

"I don't put any money into my account, because they will just take it," Mr. Kervin said. "I think this system is unjust, because the judge has already given us our sentence, and the fees are on top of that. The only way I can pay is for my common-law wife to pay, and she just works part time at a nursing home. So it is the families that suffer."

Inmates sentenced in federal courts and sent into the federal prison system are supposed to pay a sizable share of their costs of incarceration, based on their resources, according to various laws and guidelines. But the bureau says that if a judge imposes any fine it is prevented from assessing a fee, and that fines are imposed most of the time.

Federal judges and probation officers said there had been conflicting decisions by different United States Circuit Courts of Appeal on the constitutionality of room and board fees.

Because of the legal confusion, the Bureau of Prisons collected only $461 last year in incarceration fees from its 164,000 inmates, and judges imposed $3 million in fines to cover housing, said Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the bureau.

Martha Stewart, who was sentenced to five months in prison, five months of home confinement and a $30,000 fine, will not be paying for her incarceration. Megan Gaffney, a spokeswoman for the United States attorney's office in Manhattan, said Ms. Stewart's fine was based only on the sentencing guidelines for her crime and her assets. It was not intended to go toward her cost of imprisonment, Ms. Gaffney said.

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