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.
Now the State of Michigan, where I live and work as a county news reporter,
has discovered this game and wants 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 recently started adding a state fine of their own to be paid by
The state plans to clean 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 house payment.
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 living in an apartment just down the hall from ours
suffers from alcoholism. He has had enough bouts with the law over the years that he lost his driving privileges. He had a
job until about a year ago when the plant closed its doors and moved overseas. Desperate, and out of work, the man returned
to alcohol. He was recently 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 last week to reappear in court for a probation violation.
He could not pay a $600 fee for his stay in the jail.
The county board of commissioners last month filed a complaint
with state legislators and the Michigan Justice Department about the new 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 once enjoyed. A political fight now looms over spoils that probably
don't exist anyway.
It seems that governments have turned our court system
into a cash business and that is wrong. I 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 vaults.
Even though this is 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 is troublesome. A large waiting room next to the court is usually filled to capacity with people
standing in the hallway.
Even more 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.
My suggestion to 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. Have 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. They are extremely costly because all of these
people are well paid. Do not hire a lawyer or ask the court to appoint one for you. Stand alone and let the authorities prove
their case against you. 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.
Even though you lose the case, you win. The cost of your
trial will be far less than the cost paid by the county for your trial.
If enough people do this, the cash cow money machine
that our court system has turned into can be turned off in a hurry.