Wages of crime - Some prisoners pay for their stay

Sunday, May 23, 2004

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. - First, Sheriff Tim Evinger eliminated ketchup, salt, coffee and pepper at the jail, a move he says saved an instant $30,000 a year in runaway beverage and condiment costs.

Now, Evinger has decided to start charging inmates $60 a day to help cover the costs of their stay behind bars.

"My constituents expect me to use whatever means I have to keep the jail open to its full extent," the sheriff said.

It is an idea that first surfaced about 15 years ago in Alabama, and has since spread rapidly across the country, to about one-third of the county jails in the United States.

In some places, inmates are charged for their stay while they are still behind bars; other places bill them after they get out.

But increasingly, prison researchers dismiss such "pay-to-stay" plans as political grandstanding, citing the difficulty and expense of actually collecting anything from inmates and the ethics of such practices.

"If you go after people who owe you money on room and board or whatever, you will end up paying more money for the bill collector than you can ever collect for these people," said Ken Kerle, editor of American Jails magazine. "Holding inmates is a government responsibility, whether government likes it or not." In Minnesota, Olmstead County suspended its pay-to-stay program after spending $13,000 over four months to administer it, and collecting just $7,261; the county is now revamping its program. In Clayton County, Iowa, jail administrators estimate that 150 inmates have outstanding bills.

Pay-to-stay programs have had their success stories. Missouri raked in $384,000 from inmates so far this year, according to Scott Holste, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.

But such successes often ride on the backs of a few wealthy criminals. Missouri, for example, collected $178,000 this year from George Ramsey, who is in prison for life for murder. Ramsey, who has been behind bars since the mid-1980s, was finally forced to pay up this year.

Pay-to-stay programs have also been hit with court challenges. In Cincinnati, county officials had to refund about $1 million to inmates in 2003 after a judge said pay-to-stay could violate inmates' rights by charging them before they are proved guilty.

And in a Broward County, Fla., lawsuit filed in the mid-1990s, lawyers for inmates charged that pay-to-stay policies discriminated against the poor. A Florida appeals court ruled against the prisoners.

"Typically, the poorest of the poor are the ones we lock in our jails, and the government is seizing their families' money as well," said Norm Frink, the attorney for the Florida inmates. "The penalty for a criminal act is the loss of one's freedom. You are already paying with your liberty."

In Klamath Falls, where pay-to-stay began on April 15, Evinger sees it as a way to cover security, utilities, medical care, food and transportation at his 144-inmate jail, which has seen some of its funding frozen at 1999 levels because of budget cuts.

He estimated that the jail could raise $25,000 a year and that the program would cost $10,000 to administer.

Pay-to-stay at the Klamath County jail does not kick in until the inmates get out. They are asked whether they can afford to pay in full, would like to go on a payment plan, or are unable or refuse to pay for their stay.

Those who choose options C or D are taken to small-claims court, where a judge can dismiss the case by finding that the inmate has no ability to pay. If a judge finds otherwise, however, the inmate's taxes and wages will be attached.

"I will have the ability to forgive some debt to someone who has really turned their life around," Evinger said. "We don't want to take food out of families' mouths." Sam King, 44, who is serving time in Klamath County for assault, said most of his fellow inmates have lined up against the idea.

"The taxpayers are already paying for us to be here," King said. "Why should we have to pay on top of that? It's a crock. How do you get blood out of a turnip? These guys don't have any money." But 42-year-old George Booth, who is in for violating his probation on a drug offense, said he plans to go on the $20-a-month payment schedule when his time is up.

"I messed up my probation," Booth said. "Who is responsible for myself? I am. Who pays your rent on the outside? Does the sheriff come around and pay your rent? I pay taxes, and I think we shouldn't be pumping so much money into correctional facilities. We should put it back into the elementary school system." ___ On the Net: www.corrections.com/aja

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