© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

ACLU Report: "Pay To Stay" Jail Fees Amount To Debtors' Prison

Jail cell
Creative Commons
Some jails impose fees like things for booking and release.

A new study shows inmates in Ohio’s local jails often rack up thousands of dollars in fees while they are in those lockups, and that those fees make it harder for ex-offenders to become productive citizens.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio says city and county jails often charge what is known as “pay to stay” fees to prisoners for each day they’re locked up.

That’s not all. Some jails also impose added fees like for booking and release fees. In some cases, this can add up to nearly $12,000 for a 180-day jail sentence.

The ACLU’s Mike Brickner says these jails often use outside companies to collect these fees from newly released inmates.

“They load people returning to our communities with debt that they often times have no hope to pay,” Brickner said.

“While those who owe these debts are not sent directly to jail for failing to pay them, they function almost no differently from modern day debtor prisons. When you take away a person’s ability to obtain a job, housing and education, it should come as no surprise when he ends up back in the criminal justice system.”

Brickner says jails often do this to help make ends meet, but says it’s important to remember that those who are in prison are the ones who are often the least able to pay debts anyway.

“We can’t hope to balance our budgets on the backs of low income people. First of all, it’s bad policy but second of all, it just won’t work. These people can’t pay and when we force them to and when we put up barriers, we make it harder for them to actually be successful and we only hurt ourselves and our community.”

David Mahoney of Marion knows what Brickner is talking about. He’s been incarcerated in the past and has piled up these fees. 

Now, he’s out and trying to rebuild his life but he’s being hounded by bill collectors about his jail debt.

“I am paying court costs, fines and restitution. And then to slap on pay to stay fees on top of it, which my current fee is $21,000, there’s no way I can pay that,” Mahoney says. “I’m not in any situation in my life right now to be able to pay that. And unfortunately, that’s what happens with a lot of people. I mean we give up. We don’t even try.”

Mahoney says his parents have changed their phone number, just to stop the collection calls. Still, he says his debt continues to haunt him daily.

Bob Cornwell with the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association says counties that are using the pay to stay fees are doing so because of rising costs to operate jails.

“Currently they are funded through tax dollars by the citizens of the county. And in doing so, the costs have gone up because of the kind of prisoners we are holding. Medical costs have gone up,” said Cornwell.

Cornwell says don’t blame pay to stay fees for all of the problems inmates have getting their lives together 

“I think there may be other causes that they may not be able to get employment or progress down lifes road.”

The ACLU wants counties to scrap the fees but if they won’t to at least base fees on ability to repay and allow inmates to do community service to help pay the debt. Cornwell says some jails are already doing that but he says that costs money too.

“If you would have to have people guard them because of the nature of their crime, provision of clothing, materials, tools, all of those kinds of things would have to be taken into consideration to see which is being outweighed here – the cost benefit for having the roadways cleaned up versus having the people pay back what they owe for state and county jail.”

One major thing the ACLU recommends is something lawmakers say they are trying to do with new criminal justice reforms…..to reduce mass incarceration to begin with.