PAYING FOR CRIME

August 20, 2004

Faced with budget deficits, as many as 40 states and counties are charging prisoners for their room and board, an idea that is often popular with the public but raises constitutional questions, says the New York Times.

  • In Michigan's Macomb County, the sheriff's department collected almost $1.5 million last year from prisoners who had to pay for their jail time; fees run from $8 to $56 per day depending on ability to pay.
  • Connecticut, which passed a law in 1998 charging inmates fees for their incarceration, has collected $1.5 million in fees over the past four years .
  • The Indianapolis City Council is considering a measure to charge inmates $30 a day to recoup the cost of housing.
  • New Jersey is considering legislation to allow jails to collect up to $28,000 per year in incarceration fees per inmate to cover the cost of housing them.

Despite the idea's popularity, it has been overturned in some jurisdictions:

  • A Cincinnati sheriff had to refund $1 million in fees to people who had been detained but not convicted, when a federal court ruled they were denied due process.
  • In Massachusetts, a judge ruled that an old state law on the books prohibited a sheriff from charging for room and board.

Some prisoner advocates argue that the cost is a burden to newly-released felons who are trying to get back on their feet and earn a living. Spouses or other family members often foot the bill. Furthermore, some counties have complained that the administrative costs involved in collecting the fees are not worth the fees themselves.

Source: Fox Butterfield, "Many Local Officials Now Make Inmates Pay Their Own Way," New York Times, August 13, 2004.

 

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