Many jurisdictions in the United Sates have been charging pretrial detainees fees — just for sitting in jail —deeming the practice constitutional.
Everyday almost half a million people stay in jail before being convicted of a crime, mostly because they are too poor to get out on bail but in many jurisdictions that does not come for free. These detainees, awaiting their trails, have to pay fee charged by the day to stay in these jails.
These people, usually not being able to afford to pay bail, spend months incarcerated before their case goes on to trial. Now, not only do they spend jail time, everyday fee can leave them with a hefty amount that they are often unable to repay — resulting in a vicious cycle that lands them in jail once again.
The pretrial detainees’ fee is sometimes referred to as “pay to stay,” which varies from one state to another.
In Virginia, local authorities charge detainees up to $3, in North Carolina the fees may rise up to $10, whereas in Kentucky, detainees could be charged up to $50 per day. Sometimes, the decision to charge pretrial fee lies with the local government. Tennessee’s largest and most populous county that includes Memphis, Shelby County, charges its detainees $38 per day.
Pretrial fees can be waived off by a judge if they decide the detainee would be unable to pay it off. Usually when a detainee is acquitted or his charges are dropped, the fee is also dismissed. Despite that, the fee alone is evaluated by the millions every year.
Nashville recently revoked it $44-a-day fee after it led to the cancellation of detainees’ driver’s licenses. The move was powered by Metro Council Member Freddie O’Connell who called it a “non-sentenced form of financial punishment.”
Moreover, the fee wasn’t only causing trouble for pretrial detainees; it was not big on revenue either. During a three-year period ending in 2017, only $533,873.42 of the $11,411,448.55 in pretrial jail fees billed to defendants was collected. In Tennessee, it was recently deemed unconstitutional to revoke driving licenses for defendants who have been unable pay their detention costs.
Among many problems, pay-to-stay fee are often collected from detainees’ commissary accounts. When finally released, defendants are saddled with a huge debt in the name of court costs.
Pretrial fee has been long challenged in courts because it seeks to punish detainees that have not been convicted of a crime, despite that many judges have rules it “constitutional.”
Virginia’s pay-to-stay fee was upheld in 2008 after the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled it did not hinder the detainees’ right to due process. The same ruling was given in 2013 when a detainee’s pay-to-stay fee in Wisconsin amounted to $9,160 from his initial booking until his transfer to the state prison system.
Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, said governments have not funded jails, courts or public defenders as much as police and prosecutors.
“We have had an expanded criminal justice system over the last 25 years and governments have funded mostly police and prosecutors [but] they have not funded in equal amounts jails, courts or public defenders. So we now have a situation in which the criminal justice system as a whole is crumbling under the pressure of volume without resources. The only silver-lining in that is that because there aren’t really additional resources, the only option is to shrink the system.”
According to Burdeen, pretrial fee is just one of the many fines defendants have to pay for their stay in jail, including medial and booking.
“If you’re trying to fund the local criminal justice system on the backs of the people who are using it, they’re not voluntary users,” she said. “These are people coerced into the system through tickets or traffic stops or, yes, arrests. But we also know that we’re not arresting people in gated communities at the same rate we’re arresting people in poor neighborhoods. So you’re trying to fund the criminal justice system on the backs of the people who are least likely to be able to afford it.”
Thumbnail/ Banner Credits: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid