By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – More than 40 states allow prison and jails to charge inmates “pay to stay” fees, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a debt burden that reaps billions of dollars for state and local jurisdictions, and disproportionately affects Black inmates and ex-offenders.
The Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, Mo., 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 by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, a nonpartisan legal policy institute, 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 Brennan Center report, the mean annual costs 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 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,” stated the Brennan Center report. “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 three 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 one 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.
The CEPR report also noted that incarceration can lead to a deterioration of valuable work skills, educational opportunities and social networks and that loss can hurt ex-offenders as they search for jobs, making it even harder for them to repay fees that they racked up while they sat in prison.
“Because a prison record or felony conviction greatly lowers ex-offenders’ prospects in the labor market, we estimate that this large population lowered the total male employment rate that year by 1.5 to 1.7 percentage points,” stated the CEPR report. “In GDP terms, these reductions in employment cost the U.S. economy between $57 and $65 billion in lost output.”
Lawmakers who favor the fees push the need to offset some of the costs associated with incarceration, yet some jurisdictions report that less than 10 percent of the fees are ever paid, and collection agencies, despite their claims, are no better at getting ex-offenders to pay up than the prisons and jails are.
The report also cites a 1994 Chicago Tribune article written by a law clerk for an Eighth Circuit judge that suggested that prisoners should pay rent to correctional facilities even though he doubted that they would be able to afford it.
“The irony is obvious here,” the report said. “While advocating for this bold new idea, the author admits its inherent unworkability.”
What’s also unworkable is the fact that prison practices continue to indirectly discourage inmates from seeking desperately need medical care often for chronic illnesses, because at least 35 states allow correctional facilities to charge inmates for medical care.
Opponents of the “pay to stay” prison fees say that charging inmates for medical treatment can be enough of a deterrent to make them think twice about seeking health care. As inmates cycle in and out prisons and back into their communities, the spread of communicable diseases can intensify affecting everyone that interacts with them including their families, friends and even correctional staff.
The Brennan Center report recommended that government officials reexamine collection practices that place excessive burdens on ex-offenders, set caps on criminal justice debt, and clearly define the parameters for assessing fees in the criminal justice system.
As violent crime falls to thirty-year lows, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are beginning to recognize that the socioeconomic costs of mass incarceration far outweigh its benefits and that those costs not only affect the Black community, but the economic security of the United States.
The report said that the explosion of mass incarceration has created a “staggering price tag” that is ultimately shared by all Americans.
“It is understandable that jails and prisons would look to offset costs for housing these individuals,” the report said. “However, it is unreasonable to require a population whose debt to society is already being paid by the sentences imposed, 80 percent of whom are indigent, to help foot the bill.”