In Tennessee Jail, It May Soon Be Pay To Stay

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If you do the crime, you do the time. But if you're doing time at Anderson County Jail in Clinton, Tenn., it may get more expensive. The county mayor is deciding whether to approve a policy for the jail, just north of Knoxville, that would charge inmates for basic necessities: $9 for pants, $6.26 for a blanket, 29 cents for a roll of toilet paper. UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich discusses pay-for-stay policies, which are common in jails across the country.


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

If you do the crime, you do the time. But if you're doing time at Anderson County Jail in Clinton, Tennessee, it may get a bit more expensive. This week, lawmakers in the county passed a resolution that would charge inmates for basic necessities: nine bucks for pants, $6.26 for a blanket, 29 cents for a roll of toilet paper.

Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank says the cost of running her county's jail, which is just north of Knoxville, has skyrocketed. The budget is three and a half million dollars more today than it was just a decade ago, and the facility itself has expanded since then.

MAYOR TERRY FRANK: So the pressure has been on to find revenue sources from other areas instead of just going back to the taxpayers.

LYDEN: UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich says these so-called pay-to-stay policies are common in many jails across the country.

SHARON DOLOVICH: There are actually three different models of pay-to-stay programs. There are charges for individual items, so necessaries in the prison, court costs, transportation, that kind of thing. And then there are also pay-to-stay programs that have sort of three-star, four-star accommodation for people who can afford to pay not to be put in the county jail with everyone else. And then there are counties like Riverside that actually charge every single person who comes into the jail a per diem of $142 a day.

LYDEN: Does it work? Are they actually saving taxpayers any money?

DOLOVICH: You know, there's a real flaw in the model because the vast majority of people who are incarcerated are indigent. They have no money. So it's very unlikely that counties are going to collect any money from them. I think of this as the blood from a stone problem, you can't get blood from a stone. And there's huge administrative costs involved in trying to get that blood. And I think it's probably sort of a false economy.

LYDEN: So what does happen, Sharon Dolovich, when an inmate cannot afford to pay?

DOLOVICH: Often nothing. I mean, look. A lot of inmates when they are released, they already have a long list of money owing. So, you know, pretty much everyone who is convicted of a crime gets assessed fees in court costs. A lot of people, when they're incarcerated, accrue child support. People who are convicted may have to pay restitution to victims. And in most cases, people have no money. And so there's not even a hope of collection.

In some counties where people are more enthusiastic about enforcing these orders, you may have people who are called to come to court to explain to the judge why they haven't paid their debts. And in a lot of cases, people don't turn up for these hearings. But a failure to appear at one of these hearings can lead to the issuance of a bench warrant. So people could actually get arrested and incarcerated for failure to turn up at a hearing to explain why they haven't paid, which, of course, defeats the purpose of trying to save on the cost of incarceration.

LYDEN: Counties are broke. Is it not unreasonable to expect that they would ask, basically, citizens, even convicted citizens to bear some of the cost of their caretaking?

DOLOVICH: So I think it's a very fair question. I think, intuitively, it appeals, but I actually think it gets it backwards. We're not incarcerating people for their own benefit. We're incarcerating people for society's benefit. And there are costs, unfortunately, involved with removing people from the community and housing them in institutions that are separate and apart from society.

You know, I tend to think of incarceration, even though it seems odd, as a public good. And if we want to have it, like I said, I think we need to pay for it.

LYDEN: Sharon Dolovich is a law professor at UCLA. Sharon Dolovich, thank you so much.

DOLOVICH: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: In Anderson County, which has a population of just over 75,000, Terry Frank says she's struggling to decide whether to approve her county's pay-for-stay program. She's a law and order conservative, she says, but...

FRANK: It sounds good that we're not going to spend a lot of money on people who have violated the law. It makes, you know, the politicians - and I'm one of them - look good. But how much money are we really going to get? Is it really the solution? And isn't there a bigger problem that needs to be addressed?

LYDEN: That bigger problem, she says, is the legacy issue. Even as Americans have thought of themselves as tough on crime in recent decades, the weighty cost of imprisonment is tough on society.

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