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Charging for jail stays harms inmates, doesn’t help county

Published: Mon, January 13, 2014 @ 12:00 a.m.

Charging for jail stays harms inmates, doesn’t help county

Regarding your Jan. 5 story, “Mahoning sheriff, engineer make big changes,” pay-to-stay jail fees are going to create more long-term problems than they solve for Mahoning County.

First, these fees will do very little to offset massive jail costs. Consider that in one year the Hamilton County jail spent nearly three times more on food alone than it brought in from three years of jail fees.

Second, jail inmates will never be a reliable source of revenue because nearly 80 percent of people in jail are financially distressed. Counties that experiment with pay-to-stay eventually find that most inmates simply do not have the money to pay the fees, no matter how high they are or how aggressively they are solicited.

Now consider the negative side effects. Whatever funds local governments are actually able to collect from inmates will likely be lost two-fold when crippling poverty funnels them right back into a cycle of crime and incarceration. Meanwhile, the fees also target their families, who have done nothing wrong and are usually the ones depositing money into jail commissary accounts to help their loved one pay for phone calls, stamps, pencils, paper, and other basic items.

Incidentally, these items usually cost more in jail than they would at any retail outlet.

Seizing money from these commissary accounts to satisfy jail fees generates very little actual revenue, but succeeds in making it much more difficult for inmates to maintain contact with their loved ones. This is a poor trade-off, since regular contact with loved ones is one of the strongest influences in keeping people out of jail in the future.

And the only long-term solution to this problem is to keep people out of jail in the future. State-funding cuts and growing jail populations have put county officials in a tough spot, but balancing their budgets on the backs of low-income people is not only bad policy, it just won’t work.

Mike Brickner, Columbus

The writer is director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.


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