A quick look at suing prisoners for the cost of incarcerating them

I’ll confess that I was a bit shocked when I saw a headline about an ex-convict who was being sued by the state for the cost of incarcerating him. While it apparently happens in at least 41 states around the country, the focus is currently on Illinois, where the practice seems to be rather common. (Yahoo News)

This week, the Illinois criminal justice scandal making national headlines is the city of Chicago’s attempted cover-up of a video showing a police officer shooting a black man 16 times, resulting in the officer being charged with first-degree murder. But there’s another recent piece of news from the state that is similarly stomach-churning.

According to a Monday report from the Chicago Tribune, Illinois is ramping up the practice of suing former prisoners for huge sums of money for room and board while they were incarcerated. And the exploitative manner in which the state’s corrections department pursues the lawsuits raises even more questions than the very act itself.

For just one example from the list:

Johnny Melton was successfully sued for nearly $20,000 after a 15-month stint in prison, which swallowed up most of the roughly $31,000 he had won from a wrongful-death lawsuit after his mother passed away. When he got parole, he stayed in a homeless shelter.

These are known as “Pay to stay jail fees” and it turns out that they are legal across most of the country. The linked article notes that if you go to jail in Ohio, for example, you can be charged up to $66 per day for your stay behind bars. For somebody who probably landed in the crowbar motel with very few assets to begin with, that can add up to an astronomical figure in a very short amount of time. They cite reports of inmates who were convicted of relatively low level crimes emerging from their incarceration with a $35K tab due.

The other factor which sounds truly upsetting is that the state is apparently quite selective in who they go after in the collection of those fees. They identify inmates who have come into some cash on the outside through lawsuit settlements or insurance policies from family members and immediately seek to place a lien on those assets. Those with no cash and no prospects for any in the near future are simply ignored.

I realize I have a reputation for being rather “tough on crime” in terms of law enforcement and punishment of the guilty, but this entire idea seems out of whack to me. When we talk about prisoners paying their debt to society that’s supposed to be through the loss of something far more precious than gold or silver… they lose their freedom. And while high recidivism rates indicate that it’s far too rarely the case, the hope – in theory – is that the convict has learned something from their experience and will straighten up, walk the straight and narrow path and work toward earning a place in normal, law abiding society with the rest of us. Saddling them with this sort of debt the moment the cell is opened seems counterproductive in terms of that goal at best.

And how is this even legal to begin with? When you stay at a hotel or rent an apartment, you’re expected to pay for the right to occupy the space. But you do so by choice. If you fail to pay, you are evicted. How does that match up with the idea of charging someone rent for sleeping in a place that they desperately wish to leave? I imagine most prisoners would love to be “evicted” for non-payment before the end of their sentences. Jail is not a hotel nor an apartment. It’s a function of our society which we have jointly agreed to pay for so that dangerous criminals can be kept away from the rest of the herd and it’s funded through tax dollars. I don’t want to come off sounding like some sort of bleeding heart liberal here, but this just sounds absurd and counterproductive. Has this been challenged in court yet? At a quick glance I don’t see any major Supreme Court cases on the subject. The closest I could find was Bearden v. Georgia, but that really deals with the idea of sending people to jail because they don’t pay a debt, not accumulating debt by virtue of being locked up. Perhaps there should be such an investigation by the judicial branch.