Pay-To-Stay Programs for Rural County Jails

As I input the finishing edits and add in the photos for the Human Squirrel Cage book, there is a growing challenge for counties, specifically with the pay-to-stay programs initiated decades ago, which requires those incarcerated in county jails to foot the bill for their own confinement. It is akin to locking yourself in a low-rent (although no low-quality in most cases) motel. Ironically, jails are sometimes referred to as the "Crowbar Motel." The cost per day, depending on the county, state, and the amenities provided, the cost can range anywhere from $25 per day to $155+ per day. Yeah. That last one is not a typo. Opting-in for a private jail stay to avoid the overcrowding and reduce the risk to your life, or checking into a hoosegow in a urban jail, will set you back as much per day as a nice vacation hotel or a cabin in the mountains might. That's per-day. The only catch is, inmates don't get to check out whenever they want to keep the cost of their board bill down. Only the 'hotel manager' (judge) can shorten your stay and the concierge (the sheriff) has to unlock your door from the outside.

Right now, the controversy over pay-to-stay programs - several lawsuits have been filed - is over the constitutionality and that inmates leaving county facilities owing large debts they have no hope of paying may be arrested for violating their probation -- making regular payments toward one's board bill is a condition of probation in many counties - and thus be locked up again and have that debt multiply.

It is, in theory and in practice a good way for counties to recover the funds needed to keep their jails clean, safe, and well maintained, but the recovery rate of funds slows as the average economic status of the defendants, many of whom are declared indigent and in need of a public defender, declines.

The constitutionality of returning a defendant to jail for non-payment of debt is believed to violate the United States Supreme Court's previous decision (1835 I think) making debtors prisons illegal. That's a rather over-simplified summary, but you get the gist of the under-girding argument.

So, what is the answer? I don't know. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the courts. In the meantime, avoid jail, or have a job before you go in so you can apply for work release and keep earning, and paying your bill as you go so once you're out everything is paid.

The only other option may be . . . Night Court! I wonder how much the savings would be for counties and the state who offered misdemeanor and non-violent defendants the right to a super-speedy trial. In our county's past, defendants didn't languish in the county pokey too long. They were arraigned within hours, plead guilty or not guilty, and either made jail or were remanded. Today, we have Smartwatches and the ability to monitor a person's whereabouts without locking them behind bars. This might be a less expensive option that bail bondsmen or counties could offer. Of course, there's computers, tracking software, and some costs associated with such a program. Everything costs something. Nothing is free. The upside is, no jail time for defendants waiting trial. What would be the changes of getting a night judge, a set of public defenders, and a nighttime prosecutor to take on the evening and swing shifts. Would it be more than housing multiple prisoners, feeding, clothing, and providing them medical care? In the past, in our county, the court was in session on Saturdays. It's a thought.

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