American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio: 'Pay-to-stay' policy at county jails counterproductive
Kareem Elgazzar, WCPO Digital
6:57 PM, Jun 26, 2013
12:41 PM, Aug 6, 2013
CINCINNATI - In an attempt to fill ever-increasing budget gaps, county jails throughout the state have turned to the so-called “pay-to-stay” format, in which inmates pay a fee for the services they receive while incarcerated.
But in its latest examination of three Ohio jails, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio [ACLU], found that while addressing financial issues is vital, “pay-to-stay” programs are only stopgap measures. Instead, a larger examination of how county jails are funded and the criteria for the intake of prisoners is warranted. Also, the study found that the revenue generated from prisoner fee programs only put a dent into multimillion-dollar jail budgets.
The main recommendation of the report, “Adding It Up: The Financial Realities of Ohio’s Pay-to-Stay Jail Policies,” is charging inmates high fees is counterproductive and does not lead to increased revenues.
County jail officials, however, told WCPO Digital that the “incarceration reimbursement” program at the Hamilton County Justice Center is vital to maintain prisoner conditions and to provide services to the 1,240 inmates it houses.
“The pay-to-stay is a way for us to still provide basic services we use for everybody in the jail, and that’s for indigent people and people that have the means to pay,” said Major Charmaine McGuffey, commander of court and jail services for the sheriff’s office. “At some point, there is a civic responsibility of the citizens to say ‘look you’re the one that’s in trouble, all we’re doing is asking you to give us an upfront fee that it costs us to bring you into the jail.’”
In addition to the Hamilton County Justice Center, the study profiled the Fairfield County Jail and the Southeastern Regional Jail. The Fairfield County Jail, as well as the Clermont County Jail, which was not profiled in the study, suspended their “pay-to-stay” policies.
Clermont County Sheriff A.J. Rodenberg was quoted in the study as saying: “When it came time to collect the pay-to-stay, it ended up costing almost as much if not more to run the program.”
Hamilton County has been operating at a deficit since 2011. Of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office $57 million budget, approximately $31 million is appropriated to the Justice Center, said Kevin Horn, the justice center’s fiscal manager.
The incarceration reimbursement fees only generated $142,000 to $192,000 per year from 2008 and 2011, according to the report. Of the approximately $1.4 million in incarceration reimbursement fees charged by the county, only about half have actually been collected.
Horn confirmed the accuracy of those numbers to WCPO Digital, adding: “A lot of them don’t have money so that’s where the difference between what’s being charged and what’s being collected.”
Next page: What inmates can buy while incarcerated
%page_break%'Incarceration Reimbursement' Policy At The Justice Center
In its current form, the incarceration reimbursement program at the Hamilton County Justice Center requires a $40 one-time payment for convicted prisoners, not those awaiting trial. When a prisoner is being processed for intake, any money they have on them is used to pay the fee.
It costs the jail $65 per day to house an inmate, McGuffey said.
An inmate may choose to place any remaining money that is found during processing into a commissary account, which is used to purchase hygienic and other items during their stay, said Kevin Horn, the jail’s fiscal manager. Family members normally fund commissary accounts, but if an inmate has an outstanding incarceration reimbursement balance, any money deposited into a commissary account if first used to pay off the balance, McGuffey said.
The jail does not draw money for fees if the account balance is less than $5.
But if an inmate does not have cash at the time of processing or is unable to pay the fee, the process for declaring an inmate indigent begins. Once an inmate is deemed indigent, they are not required to pay the fee, she said. The report found that despite Hamilton County’s attempt to avoid billing indigent inmates, “people who are low income or face financial hardship may still not meet the jail’s definition of indigent,” the report states.
For example, the report found only 52 percent of inmates in Hamilton County were declared indigent in 2011. The figure does not support what national experts estimate. At least 80 percent of the jail population nationwide is low income, according to the report.
“For indigent people, which I think is a focus and appropriately so of the ACLU, they can come talk to our account clerks when they are released from jail and they will help them with the form that proves their indigent, and once they do that, we don’t flag their account,” McGuffey said.
In other words, the inmate must be proactive in declaring they are indigent and is unable to pay the fee.
There is no other method to pay for an incarceration reimbursement fee, such as a work detail or community service, McGuffey said. The policy is set up that if jail officials wanted to chase released inmates for their outstanding balances, they could.
“We don’t do that, we don’t have the manpower for that,” McGuffey said. "We're not a collection agency."
The ACLU report alleges inmates are worse off when they leave jail. The ACLU recommends jails avoid the accrual of fees. Financial burdens that grow with each period of incarceration helps neither the jail nor the inmate, according to the report.
“People who enter into county jails are indigent when they walk in,” said Mike Brickner, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU of Ohio. “I would argue that many leave jail far more indigent.”
A commissary store order list obtained by WCPO Digital shows that inmates may choose to purchase anything from Crystal Lite to three different name brands of toothpaste. Inmates are limited to $80 in purchases per day, according to the commissary store document.
“Given the often inflated prices of commissary items, this pittance is unlikely to allow the incarcerated person to purchase many items at the commissary,” the report read in part. “Any money still owed to the jail at the end of incarceration is invoiced to the inmate.”
So when an inmate returns after being convicted for another crime, they are charged a new incarceration fee in addition to the outstanding balance owed to the jail.
“Inability to find employment is also a factor that leads to a higher probability they will be arrested again,” the report states. “As a result, taxpayers lose by paying for incarceration, failed fee collection programs, public assistance and possible future incarceration.”