It seems that there is a new initiative to make money in the USA – charge prisoners for their stay.
At first this may seem like quite a good idea to balance the books. Making prisoners contribute financially to the cost of keeping them incarcerated could, theoretically, save the taxpayer a considerable amount of money, which could be used to pay for improving the lives of ‘good’ citizens.
In September of last year, Riverside County in California came up with the idea of charging prisoners $142.42 per day in a bid to save an estimated $3 to $5 million per year.
Other states are struggling to meet financial targets and cut costs, which many feel is placing the public at unnecessary risk. In Washington, corrections officials considered leaving thousands of former prisoners currently on parole unsupervised in an attempt to cut costs. In Camden County, Georgia, officials mulled the idea of sending prisoners to work as fire-fighters to cope with budget woes.
In Philadelphia, they have gone a step further by charging people for missing court dates, and if the bill is not paid, welfare payments will be stopped – the same happens to ex-offenders who have not paid their bill for their stay at the state’s penal institutions.
The collection process started in 2010, and some people have received bills for missing court dates and prison stays as far back as the 1970s.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter launched a collection programme called ‘Stand Up, Pay Up’.
Mayor Nutter says it wasn’t just about the money – it was also about changing a culture and a mindset.”People think that this is a game. This is not a game. We are serious as a heart attack about collecting this money,” he said at a press conference in 2010. However, looking at the financial state of the penal system in the US perhaps it is more about the money than anything else.
Over 300,000 people who have been arrested or incarcerated owe debts to the city, and according to Judge Dembe everyone who has not paid is a fugitive.
Opponents to the charges claim that they target the poorest and vulnerable of society and that the debt owed to the state (which has to be paid) will never allow them to get out of very difficult financial positions. Owing a debt to the state also affects credit ratings, which means homes are harder to find and obtaining a car or loan is almost impossible.
We think that people who commit crimes should pay for them within the context of a legal system.
To enforce fees that amount to tens of thousands of dollars on a person who is already struggling to re-establish themselves in the world after being in prison is just plain stupid.
All it will do is encourage more crime by those who have no other way to get cash – after all, they are not going to get a well-paid job with a criminal record and bad credit history.