Paying For Room And Board In Jail
By James Donahue
I have noticed a trend in recent years for counties to charge jail inmates for their
beds and meals while being held against their will.
The practice grew as a way to generate extra cash as hard economic times caused the
tax revenues feeding government coffers dwindled. Rather than let local empires crumble after years of living with bulging
budgets filled with state and federal revenue sharing dollars and cash grants, the local boards scrambled to fill the void
with "creative" sources of money.
Thus came the practice by the municipal, district and circuit judges to increase fines
and court charges, force convicted felons to pay the cost of court-appointed legal counsel, and finally, pay for their room
and board while housed in the local lock-up.
The system now feeds upon itself in abstract ways. Police earn their keep through mostly
traffic arrests so drivers rarely escape a summons when stopped by those flashing red, white and blue lights. The counties
feed on the revenues dipped out of the pockets of the people as they ride the daily treadmill through the court system, and
the jails continue to soak the ones unlucky enough to be sentenced to spend time behind bars.
Eventually the State of
Michigan, where I live and worked as a county news reporter, got in on the action. Struggling with a budget crunch of its
own, and overcrowded prisons (mostly caused by the nation's ridiculous war on drugs) legislators added a state fine of their
own to be paid by local wrong-doers.
The state also started cleaning out its prisons by paying local county jails to house
felons convicted of non-violent crimes. It also has set new Circuit Court sentencing guidelines. Instead of prison, judges
are now encouraged to choose jail and probation for non-violent offenders.
It seems that governments are looking
at the daily line-up of felons, shoplifters and traffic offenders as some kind of a cash cow that can be milked for the money
needed to fill those red ink drenched coffers.
But the program is beginning to cave in on itself.
That is because the state
economic crunch is caused by hard times on the home front. Many of the people getting arrested and sentenced in the local
courts are out-of-work and financially bankrupt. Those that get caught stealing are sometimes taking desperate steps to buy
food and meet their next rent payment. And we all know that the cost of these basic items for just surviving is going through
Thus the thought of socking people without money to eat or keep house and home with heavy court
fines and costs and jail rent is not working out.
A man that lived in an apartment just down the hall from ours suffered from alcoholism.
He had enough bouts with the law over the years that he lost his driving privileges. He had a job until the plant where he
worked closed its doors and moved overseas. Desperate, and out of work, the man returned to alcohol. He was soon arrested
for being drunk on a public street and sentenced to about a month in jail. He apparently coughed up cash for the court fine
but was served with a summons to reappear in court for a probation violation. He could not pay a $600 fee for his stay in
At about this same time the county board of commissioners filed a complaint with state legislators
and the Michigan Justice Department about fines taken from convicted Circuit Court felons. It seems the state demands its
money off the top and if there is any money left over, that is what the county gets.
Since people are really
broke these days, this means the state is stealing most of the cash cow the county governments created for themselves. A political
fight developed over spoils that were never in existence.
It seems that governments have turned our court system into a cash business and that
is wrong. We see prosecutors taking aggressive action against people for relatively minor infractions that used to get people
sent home by police officers with a warning. They are leaving no stone unturned in their rush to fill those dwindling money
Even though we lived in a rural area, where the county seat is a town no larger than about 2,000 people, the
number of people passing through the District Court to answer traffic charges and misdemeanors every day was troublesome.
A large waiting room next to the court was usually filled to capacity with people standing in the hallway.
troubling is that almost every arrested person succumbs to the system, pleads guilty to something (police like to hit them
with multiple charges if possible giving the prosecutor room to plea bargain) and then tries to pay the bill.
to help put an end to this is for people to stand up to the system and demand a trial. Even if you know you are guilty, deny
everything, demand a trial, and force the court to do what is right. Ask for a jury if possible.
A trial can
tie up a courtroom, judge, court recorders, lawyers, a prosecutor and the arresting police officers for at least a day. Sometimes
longer. They are extremely costly because all of these people, except the jurors, are well paid. Do not hire a lawyer or ask
the court to appoint one for you. If you do this and lose, you will also be charged legal fees. Stand alone and let the authorities
prove their case against you. It won’t matter if you stand mute and offer nothing in your own defense. If you wish to
speak up, be aggressive in questioning witnesses and attempt to get witnesses in your own defense if possible.
If you go
into this with the right attitude, having a trial can be fun, even though you can expect to be aggressively attacked and prodded
by angry judges and lawyers who think you are wasting their "valuable time." And that is exactly what you are doing.
you lose the case, you win. The cost of your trial will probably be far less than the cost paid by the county for your trial.
Some judges may attempt to hike the usual fine for the offense, however, in an effort to discourage people from choosing a
trial. But it is everybody's legal right to demand a trial when charged with a crime.
If enough people do this,
the cash cow money machine that our court system has turned into might eventually be shut off.