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Pay to stay: Jails in Michigan and across the country are billing people for time behind bars

Flickr - Ben

For every day you're locked up in Eaton County after being sentenced, the mid-Michigan jail bills you $32.

That's because of a 1984 state law giving county jails the option to charge convicted inmates up to $60 a day for lodging.

Although Michigan was an early adopter of the practice, the vast majority of states now allow people to be charged for time in jail or prison.

But some criminal justice reformers say so-called pay to stay fee further an unequal justice system by heaping extra punishment on the poor. They're pushing for the fees to be eliminated.

Lisa Foster is a retired judge who now advocates to reduce financial burdens on incarcerated people through the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

She says pay to stay policies became popular during the 1980s when the prison population ballooned and the federal government eliminated the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, a key agency funding local law enforcement.

Not a robust moneymaker: Jails struggle to collect fees from pay to stay

But, in practice, the fees have not been a robust moneymaker.

"That's because the people who are in the system are overwhelmingly poor and unable to pay their fees," Foster said. "So what you see routinely is collection rates that hover in the 10%, 15% range at most."

Eaton County assessed $1.3 million from pay to stay fees over the last two fiscal years but collected only 5% of that money, according to the county controller's office. The county does allow people to get discounts of up to 50% off the amount assessed if they pay within 30 days, according to the controller.

Despite the low payment rate, Rick Jones, a former state senator who also served as Eaton County sheriff, supports keeping the fees in place.

"It costs a great deal for taxpayers to keep somebody in jail or in prison," Jones said. "I'm sure that the taxpayers would say, even if you're only getting a small percent, at least that's a percentage that the taxpayers didn't have to pay."

Jones said, when he was sheriff, a trustee program allowed inmates to get discounts off their lodging costs by volunteering for work at the jail.

Neither Tom Reich, Eaton County's sheriff since 2013, nor spokesperson Jerri Nesbitt would confirm whether such a volunteer program still exists; both declined to answer any questions about pay to stay fees.

Expert: Effects of jail debt can be far-reaching

Even if the fees remain unpaid, University of Southern California Assistant Sociology Professor Brittany Friedman says the consequencesof jail debt can be far-reaching.

People can end up back in court because of unpaid fines. Others take a hit to their credit scores because some governments contract with collection agencies or sue over unpaid debt.

"If pay to stay is really meant to offset the costs of incarcerating people, then why are we sticking them with a bill that then further tethers them to the system?" Friedman said.

Josh Hoe knows that system firsthand. He now works as a policy analyst for a nonprofit called Safe & Just Michigan after pleading guilty to sex crimes in 2010. Before being sent to prison, he owed more than $1,000 in fees from just over a month at the Macomb County Jail, according to testimony he gave to Michigan's Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.

The Macomb jail charges daily lodging fees along with fees for other services like booking and medical visits.

Although Hoe's family helped him out financially, he says other formerly incarcerated people aren't so lucky with many struggling to find jobs while saddled with criminal records.

“The worst thing you can do when someone's trying to reenter is make them desperate," Hoe said. "Especially, you know, say someone's previous life was a lucrative life, say dealing drugs or something like that, and you bring them back where they have no money, no hope, you know, you've put a bunch of debt on them.”

Pay to stay policies vary widely at Michigan jails

In suburban Detroit, the Oakland County Jail has billed more than $27 million over two calendar years from pay to stay fees that cost $60 a day.

But the jail serving Michigan's second most populous county has clawed back only a small fraction of that money, having brought in $565,353 from the fees over the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years, according to information provided by the sheriff's office.

Not all Michigan jails charge pay to stay fees and the places that do vary widely in how much they charge. Some bill convicted people for their time in jail including pretrial detention; others charge only for time post-sentencing.

A 2018 survey from the Mackinac Center found at least 68 of Michigan's 83 counties charge jail housing fees, although the think tank also found that officials struggled to recoup those fees.

Although the Washtenaw County Jail in Ann Arbor does not charge pay to stay fees,that sheriff's office recently forgave more than $500,000 in jail debt. Those fees, dating back to 2013, included charges for things like intake, dental visits and barbershop services.

In spring 2019, the Ingham County Jail reduced its daily pay to stay fees from $50 to $8, in part, because collection rates were so low.

Ingham County has collected less than 9% of the more than $761,414 it's charged from pay to stay in 2019 and 2020, according to figures provided by the sheriff's office.

Advocates say pay to stay is an extra — and counterproductive —hurdle

Asia Johnson, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, wants to see all such fees eliminated. She spent nine years behind bars in a Michigan prison and says, without personal experience, it's difficult to understand how severe the effects of incarceration are.

"It's a disruption to their ability to pay their bills, child care, their job," Johnson said. "Like, you're already losing so much by being in jail. Why add on this added stressor?"

Pay to stay, Johnson says, is just one more hurdle as incarcerated people try to reenter society.

Sarah Lehr is a state government reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio.
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