Grand Haven Tribune: Neither inmates nor counties get out of jail free

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Neither inmates nor counties get out of jail free

• Jun 19, 2018 at 5:00 PM

In a June 15, 2018, blog post for The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, policy analyst Kahryn Riley notes that Michigan counties try, unsuccessfully, to pass their jail expenditures on to inmates.

”Fans of the board game Monopoly know that, if you land in jail, it’ll cost you $50 to get out. But it may surprise you to learn that real inmates in Michigan jails may also owe that much – and a lot more. County jails in our state are allowed to bill inmates nightly, and many do. But few recoup their costs by doing so, because criminal defendants are frequently indigent. While incarceration is an expensive prospect and inmates aren’t the most sympathetic of people, it’s unfair and unsustainable for counties to expect them to fund jails. Still, if it must be done, we should enact policies that reduce jail populations and give inmates better options for paying their debts,” Riley writes.

In the blog post, the Michigan public policy agency surveyed state counties to find out how much their jails charge inmates, and found a wide range in housing fees.

“At least 68 jails impose some kind of fee. A few jails charge the full $60 authorized by statute, while a few, including Kalamazoo, Mason, Mecosta, Ogema, and Washtenaw, charge none at all.

One thing that all counties seem to have in common is difficulty collecting housing fees. Although we were not able to secure precise figures on how much jails are able to recoup, it appears that almost none of them collect even half of what they charge. Many reported collecting fewer than 10 percent of their housing fees, and for some, it was less than 1 percent. Jail administrators responded to our question about what portion of inmates pay their bill with answers like ‘unknown, but low,’ ‘very low,’ and ‘very, very low – maybe 2 in 450 [inmates pay].’ One jail administrator told us, ‘It’s like getting blood from a turnip.’ These responses reflect the fact that criminal offenders are more likely to be poor, which makes it unlikely they will fund county treasuries,” writes Riley.

In her post, Riley offers several steps counties can take to reduce jail expenditures and recoup more of their money. She also notes that even the best policy proposals can’t work without proper funding.

“Legal system funding issues need urgent attention, and adherence to the status quo is simply not an option,” Riley writes.

Click hear to read the complete blog post from The Mackinac Center. 

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