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The vast majority of states allow people to be charged for time behind bars


Being sentenced for a crime could cost you more than just time behind bars. Prisons and jails across the country are billing inmates for room and board. Some criminal justice reformers in Michigan and other states say the so-called pay-to-stay fees are another example of the hidden costs of incarceration, and they're pushing for the fees to be eliminated.

From member station WKAR in Lansing, Sarah Lehr reports.

SARAH LEHR, BYLINE: Here in Central Michigan, for every day you're locked up in Eaton County after being sentenced, the 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 behind bars.

Lisa Foster is a retired judge who now leads the Fines and Fees Justice Center. She advocates to reduce financial penalties for incarcerated people and argues they further an unequal justice system and punish the poor. Foster says pay-to-stay policies became popular during the 1980s, when the prison population ballooned and agencies tried to claw back money amid federal cuts to local law enforcement. But in practice, the fees have not been a robust moneymaker.

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

LEHR: Eaton County assessed more than $1 million from pay-to-stay fees over the last two fiscal years but collected only 5% of that money. Despite that low payment rate, Rick Jones, a former state senator who also served as Eaton County sheriff, supports keeping the fees in place.

RICK JONES: 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.

LEHR: Brittany Friedman teaches sociology at the University of Southern California. Her research shows the effects of jail debt can be far-reaching.

BRITTANY FRIEDMAN: 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?

LEHR: Josh Hoe is a registered sex offender who knows the system firsthand. He now works as a policy analyst for a nonprofit called Safe & Just Michigan. Before being sent to prison, he owed more than $1,000 in fees from just over a month at the Macomb County Jail. He says many formerly incarcerated people struggle just to find someone who will hire them because of their criminal records.

JOSH HOE: The worst thing you can do when someone's trying to reenter is make them desperate, and you bring them back where they have no money, no hope. You know, you've put a bunch of debt on them.

LEHR: In Greater Lansing, the Ingham County Jail recently reduced its daily pay-to-stay fees from $50 to only $8, in part because collection rates were so low. But Asia Johnson, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, wants to see all fees eliminated. She spent nine years locked up in a Michigan prison.

ASIA JOHNSON: It's a disruption to their ability to pay their bills, child care, their job. Like, you're already losing so much by being in jail.

LEHR: Johnson and others say pay-to-stay fees are just one more hurdle for incarcerated people as they try to reenter society and that they can be counterproductive in the long run.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Lehr in Lansing, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "AFTER THOUGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Lehr
Sarah Lehr is a politics and civics reporter for WKAR News.