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Inmates pay for jail stay? Proposal fails

April 20, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Should state or county prison inmates pay for their stay in jail? That unusual idea was taken up by a state senate committee Tuesday.California taxpayers spend roughly $43,000 per year per inmate.

State Senator Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach), who is running for state attorney general, thinks it's time to start charging inmates room and board, up to $25 a day.

"This bill is simply trying to level the playing field and make these convicted criminals pay some fair share," said Harman.

Many inmates already have prison accounts set up so families can deposit money into them.

While 55 percent goes to victim restitution, the rest can be used to buy snacks, batteries and other items at the canteen.

The proposed "Pay-to-Stay" law would automatically deduct room and board expenses from the accounts.

For inmates who can't afford it, the debt would be forgiven if they stay out of prison for two years upon their release.

Harman brought in the sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts, to testify about a similar program at his local jail that charges only $5 a day. His small facility made $700,000 in two years. He says it didn't seem fair to cut schools and social programs while his budget for incarceration kept growing.

"This is also about rehabilitation and accountability," said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. "I think at a time when taxpayers are struggling, making the cuts, this is a program that really works."

But opponents were worried about the financial burden that doesn't necessarily punish the inmate.

"It's very important to understand that it's not prisoners who will pay. It's the family members of the incarcerated who send money into prisoner's trust accounts," said Jim Lindburg, Friends Committee on Legislation.

In the end, the idea seemed too novel and was voted down.

Even the state of Massachusetts is having trouble taking the program statewide. Lawmakers there can't even get a committee hearing like the proposal did here in California.


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