Debt to Society?
By Alex Distefano
The trickledown effect of the slugging economy is hitting Riverside County’s jail system, and now county officials have a new plan to offset some of the costs: charging prisoners for their stay in the slammer.
The county is dealing with a projected $80-million deficit, and like many counties throughout the state, it will be forced to take in inmates transferred in from state facilities, as per a federal court order to lower the prison population. But many critics and prison activists groups are claiming that a proposal to make prisoners pay is not only unfair, but it is impractical to enforce.
The ordinance, which was passed unanimously by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors last week, was proposed by Supervisor Jeff Stone. Stone says, according to media reports, that starting this month all prisoners who are financially able to pay will be charged $142 per day for their stay in county jail facilities. This money will be reimbursed to the state to pay for healthcare services, food, security, clothing and other jail expenses. Stone said that the county will do whatever it takes to collect the debt, once the prisoners are released.
Bo Brown, of the Prison Activist Resource Center based out of Oakland, sees this move by Riverside County as a way to punish the lower class. “This new transferring of inmates from state to local jails is not going to save money,” Brown tells the Weekly. “It’s just going to transfer the costs and debt to local counties, which is ridiculous.”
Brown insists that poor living conditions and basic human rights violations occur in jails all across the country, and that if any money was collected it would go to line the pockets of prison workers and politicians.
“I see this as all about robbing the taxpayers,” Brown says. “They don’t spend that money on the prisoners’ needs, they get minimal if any healthcare services, people die in jails all the time and the food they get is barely edible. Prison is an industry, the raw materials are the prisoners, [the prison industry] is about making money—nothing else. The entire prison system needs to be audited.”
However, although Stone admits it is true not all inmates will be able to pay the fees, at least a quarter of them will; and in these times, he says the county literally needs every penny it can get. A judge must first determine if an inmate has the ability to pay, before he can be charged. After being released, all inmates who can pay, but don’t will not be sent back to jail, but will be hit financially.
According to the L.A. Times, Stone said the county will go after “bank accounts, investments, tax refunds, lottery winnings and assets such as property, boats and RVs. Wages will be garnished and liens will be placed on homes, property and businesses.”
But Brown is adamant that this is the wrong idea, and that charging prisoners after they serve their time would only make things harder. Like other critics, he says that this extra debt that would be created would more likely end up pushing people back into a lifestyle of crime.
“How can they expect people who have little or no money, no job and are just out of jail to pay these fines?” Brown asks.
“This whole thing is part of a bigger problem. The biggest lobbying group in the state of California is the [California Correctional Peace officers Association]. They [allegedly] pay off the politicians,” Brown says. “A lawsuit filed against this, would be a good thing if the ACLU can do it. I hope they do. It’s like making a slave pay. It’s like debtors’ prisons in England.
Stone told the L.A. Times his proposal was about “accountability.” He sees this proposal as a deterrent for criminals and thinks the move by Riverside County might make other counties and local municipalities look into similar ordinances to offset some of their costs of jailing inmates.