Should Prisoners Pay for Their Own Jail Time?

Illinois tax payers have been alarmed in recent years over the rising costs of our state prisons. In fact, according to the VERA Institute of Justice, we blew the budget by an alarming 32.5% in 2010. What if, as a solution, we just asked prisoners to pay for their jail time? Perhaps – like a college graduate repaying the government for his education through student loans – a former prisoner could slowly pay back the state for his incarceration.

This doesn't sound like a logical response, does it? After all, a person being sent to jail is unlikely to have say, $143 a day to cover their time (the esitmated cost per prisoner in Cook County according to a Chicago Tribune report). Yet, in one recent case, a Chicago man was told he owed $20,000 to cover his own jail time. Johnnie Melton, age 49, is being ordered to reimburse the state after it was discovered that he had the assets to cover the cost (assets which he acquired from the wrongful death lawsuit for his mother).

The ruling by the appellate court was justified by arguing that "the goal of requiring reimbursement seeks to shift the economic burden of incarceration from the public to the prisoner." To be fair, Melton has been convicted of drug crimes three times in a little over ten years, with his last conviction resulting in 9 years in prison – so he certainly has cost the state a large sum of money.

Something about this scenario is still particularly troubling and it comes from below the surface. If the goal of incarceration is to take individuals who are a threat to public safety and rehabilitate them, creating a safer place for residents to live, then requiring the public to foot the bill doesn't seem so unreasonable. So then, if we have created a reality in our state's criminal justice system in which it seems altogether unfair for the public to pay for prisons, the question must be asked: are jails doing their job? Reimbursement certainly discourages individuals from abusing the prison system for lack of housing or income or the like, but it is difficult to say whether such a practice is a solution in the end, or simply a desperate measure to help the state get back on its fiscal feet.

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