The Mind of James Donahue

Robbing The Poor

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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 local wrong-doers.


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.

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