Some prisoners forced to pay for stay

FREDDIE ALLEN | 7/13/2015, 11:04 a.m.
More than 40 states allow prison and jails to charge inmates pay to stay fees, a debt burden that reaps ...
State prisoner Robert Marbury talks about the living conditions in the prison at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Alabama. Brynn Anderson

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – More than 40 states allow prison and jails to charge inmates pay to stay fees, a debt burden that reaps billions of dollars for state and local jurisdictions, and disproportionately affects Black inmates and ex-offenders, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, a nonpartisan legal policy institute.

The Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, Missouri, policy department exposed the role that excessive court fees and fines imposed on the mostly Black residents there were used to bolster the small suburb’s revenue base.

The May 2015 report examined the arguments for and against imposing monetary penalties on prisoners and the lasting effects that those policies have on returning citizens and their communities.

According to the report, the mean annual cost to house inmates was nearly $30,000, but some states spent more than $40,000. Jurisdictions spend $80 billion every year in jails and prisons similar to the federal government’s budget for the Department of Education.

The report said that charging inmates fees predates the Civil War with Michigan passing the first correctional fee law in 1846.

The fees range from $10 to booking in some jurisdictions to $300 a month for an electric monitoring system. Prisoners are often charged for police transport, case filing, felony surcharges, drug testing and sex offender registration.

While some states charge inmates for medical fees and booking, others charge fees equivalent to room and board often referred to as pay to stay in an effort to transfer correctional costs to inmates.

Researchers found that small fees can quickly avalanche into thousands of dollars, burying ex-offenders and their families in more debt than they can ever repay. According to the report, the accumulated debt from an assortment of prison fees topped $50 billion.

Individuals can be charged for police transport, case filing, felony surcharges, electronic monitoring, drug testing and sex offender registration, the report said.

A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that corrections is currently the third-largest category of spending in most states, behind education and health care. In fact, somewhat disconcertingly, 11 states spent more of their general funds on corrections than on higher education in 2013.

Blacks are more than twice as likely to be arrested than Whites. One in 3 Black males born in 2001 will likely spend some time in prison, compared to 1 out of every 17 males. One in 19 Black women and about 1 in 111 White women will share that same fate. Sentences for Black men are almost 20 percent longer than sentences for White men convicted of similar crimes.

In the Center for Economic and Policy Research report titled Ex-offenders and the Labor Market, researchers found that although Blacks account for about 13 percent of the United States population, they make up roughly 40 percent of prisoners. Whites accounted for more than 62 percent of prisoners in 1960 and now make up about 33 percent of the prison population. CEPR researchers also estimated that Black ex-offenders have a recidivism rate that is about 9 percent above the average and Whites return to prison at a rate that is about 9 percent below average.