The Hamilton County Jail charges its inmates a fee for incarceration, and a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio (ACLU) suggests the practice harms low-income inmates and raises little money for the county.
The report, which CityBeat exclusively acquired from the ACLU prior to its official June 26 release, compares the so-called “pay-to-stay” policies in the Fairfield County Jail, the Hamilton County Jail and the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail (SEORJ).
The report’s core finding: Systems with low fees and limited enforcement win in the long run.
“While it seems counterintuitive to some that a more lenient system would be more effective, this system has achieved the highest level of success in this sample,” the report reads.
Cincinnati’s local jail, which revived its pay-to-stay policy in 2008 after a court threw out an older version in 2000, charges a one-time $40 booking fee to individuals who have pled guilty or are convicted of an offense.
The money is drawn from a commissary account, which is otherwise used by inmates to pay for goods and services such as toothpaste and phone calls. The account is set up after a person is incarcerated, and it’s typically funded by family members.
If a person is released and still owes a fee, the charges are invoiced to the former inmate.
There are some protections for low-income inmates: First, the Hamilton County Jail will not draw from a commissary account unless there’s a minimum of $5 in it. Second, officials interview and investigate inmates to make sure they’re not “indigent,” or poor to the point of needing aid; if the inmates are deemed impoverished enough, the booking fee is dropped.
Major Charmaine McGuffey, head of the Hamilton County Justice Department, says the process puts the responsibility on inmates to prove they’re poor.
When asked whether that system might hurt less educated inmates who aren’t capable of knowledgeably defending themselves, McGuffey told CityBeat, “That’s one of the reasons we talk to them verbally
The ACLU claims the protections aren’t sufficient. The $5 minimum isn’t enough to buy much, given that commissary items are often overpriced. As an example, a 10-minute phone call typically costs inmates $8 to $10, according to Mike Brickner, author of the report and research director at the ACLU.
Similarly, how the jail determines who is indigent — or poor enough to be excluded from the policy — “doesn’t seem to catch a lot of the people who are low income,” Brickner says.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics states that about 80 percent of the nationwide inmate population is indigent and requires the services of a public defender. But the Hamilton County Jail deems about 52 percent of its inmates indigent, according to data acquired by the ACLU.
“So it’s 80 percent versus 52 percent,” Brickner says. “That seems to be at least a sizable portion of the inmates who are not being declared indigent by the Hamilton County Jail but are probably very low income.”
Brickner says the statistic is particularly worrying for those leaving jail, who typically don’t have a job waiting for them following incarceration. That, Brickner says, is enough to make most people impoverished upon leaving jail.
McGuffey says the jail allows inmates to prove they can’t afford the fees at any time, even after leaving jail. But the follow-up process requires inmates first approach officials — only then are they given the proper forms to prove it.
Ultimately, the pay-to-stay fees fail to raise much revenue for Hamilton County, according to the ACLU report. Between 2008 and 2011, pay-to-stay brought in between $142,000 to $192,000 a year — not enough to pay for even 1 percent of the $31 million the jail system cost the county in 2010.
Some of that can be attributed to the county’s inability to collect about half of what it charges. Of about $1.4 million charged to inmates between May 2008 and November 2011, the jail only received about $700,000 in revenue, according to the report.
McGuffey says the rate of payments isn’t a concern to the county. “We’re not a bill collecting agency,” he says. “We don’t have the manpower or personnel to go out and literally try to collect funds from people who have been released from jail.”
Instead, the jail is content with leaving the charges on the books and trying to obtain them only if a debtor is re-incarcerated, according to McGuffey.
With the 2012 election of Jim Neil — the first new county sheriff in almost 30 years — Brickner says it might be an opportune time for Hamilton County to reconsider pay-to-stay. But McGuffey says there are no current plans to change the policy.
Despite the problems noted by Brickner and the report, the Hamilton County Jail wasn’t the most criticized of the three examples looked at by the ACLU. The Fairfield County Jail, which ended its pay-to-stay policy in August 2012, charged the highest daily fees and at first used aggressive collections agencies, but it only collected 15 percent of its charges.
SEORJ was the least criticized in the report. The jail typically charges the lowest fees and uses the least aggressive tactics — never going after a former inmate with an invoice or collections agency. In the end, SEORJ collected nearly 100 percent of charges, which the report states: “more than makes up for the lower fee amounts and allows the jail to cover anywhere from 9.5 percent to 13.5 percent of non-medical inmate supplies.”
While the report criticizes counties for pay-to-stay, it states county jails only feel compelled to adopt the policies because of costs brought on by broader incarceration laws across Ohio.
“The issue really is a lot of these people shouldn’t be incarcerated at all,” Brickner says, claiming many inmates would be better off in rehabilitative programs, halfway houses or probation. “Local leaders should be looking at either changing local laws or working with state leaders to change state laws so that those people don’t have to be in the local jail.”
Until then, the report advises county jails to relax fees and enforcement and make better efforts to determine whether an inmate is impoverished. ©