The website for Newaygo County Jail, north of Grand Rapids, is upfront about what it expects from inmates. They will be billed when they leave – $30 a day for housing and charged for medical care, haircuts, personal care kits and other items.
And if they fail to pay after they leave jail, it warns, that “will cause the expenses to be referred to a Collection Agency who will take whatever course of action they deem necessary to collect including legal action.”
It further warns that failure to pay could damage an inmate's credit rating for seven years.
Other Michigan counties have similar policies; Macomb County bills convicted jail inmates $45 a day. From 2011 through 2015, the county collected nearly $1.2 million in inmate housing fees. That means an inmate serving a six-month sentence could leave with a bill for more than $8,000. It also turns over delinquent accounts to a collection agency.
“It's a good program,” said Macomb County Sheriff Tony Wickersham. “We still need to hold (inmates) accountable. Those individuals who are sentenced to the county jail have to pay their fair share.”
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based nonpartisan policy institute, asserts these charges impose unfair burdens on a population that is mostly poor and undereducated – and only make it more likely ex-offenders will return to jail. Eisen authored a 2015 report on the issue, “Charging Inmates Perpetuates Mass Incarceration.”
Moreover, Eisen said, housing fees typically cost as much to collect as counties actually take in.
Take Macomb’s five-year $1.2 million take. Macomb County Sheriff Wickersham conceded in a 2015 BBC News article the county's program was costing nearly as much to administer as it collected. In 2015, according to an annual report, the county brought in just over $250,000 in inmate housing fees.
Subtract from that an estimated $150,000 in annual salaries and benefits for two employees paid to run the program, Wickersham told Bridge. The county also pays collection agencies to pressure inmates to pay their bills. Wickersham said he was unaware how much their annual reimbursement might be. That information was not available in the county's budget.
But beyond financial costs, Eisen said, it is simply counterproductive to load debt on a population that will have a hard time as it is reintegrating into society after they leave jail.
“There are a million collateral consequences. It can affect whether you can buy a car or rent an apartment. The last thing we should be doing is putting up barriers to getting back into society,” she said.
“You are criminalizing poverty, is what you are doing.”
Empty pockets, few prospects
A 2002 profile of U.S. jail inmates by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 86 percent of jail inmates had a high school degree or less – with 12 percent holding an eighth grade education or less. Over half grew up in a single-parent household or with a guardian, such as grandparents or another relative, or a non-relative.
About a fifth had no income before they entered jail and 14 percent reported they had been homeless or living in a shelter some time in the year before they were incarcerated. Of those who were working, most earned less than $24,000 a year.
A bad credit rating from missed payments on a jail housing bill could make that much tougher after incarceration. A 2013 survey found that one in 10 Americans were denied jobs due to bad credit, even for entry-level, low-paying positions.
A former Ottawa County resident named Brad – he asked that his real name not be used – was incarcerated in Ottawa County Jail in 2006 at age 17 for larceny in a building, a felony. When he departed 255 days later, he recalled, he was given 30 days to sign up for a payment plan on a bill of about $6,500. Ottawa County charges even more – $50 a day – for convicted inmates, so that was half what his bill could have been.
“I didn't have any income, the kind of steady employment, where I could afford the payment plan,” he said, opting at the time not to sign up.
Not long after, he said, he got a bill in the mail for just under $13,000. He said it was an amount his parents simply could not afford.
“It was a shocker,” he said.
Brad incurred a second bill in 2008, when he was jailed for 25 days for attempting to buy alcohol as a minor. That added another $1,250 to his bill. He learned his case had been turned over to a collection agency. He said he got phone calls at home, pressuring him to pay, even after he moved to Grand Rapids.
Then one day in 2011, he got a knock on a door. It was a summons to appear in court.
With the help of an attorney from Legal Aid of Western Michigan, Brad settled the case with Ottawa County in 2012 for $3,500. He got the sum from a family friend, whom he is now repaying.
But Brad, now 28 and supporting himself with a job in the hospitality industry, said the burden of that bill held him back from applying for a loan to buy a car and even applying for a new apartment.
“When people see your credit history, see you owe $14,000 to the county. They wonder, 'What's that about?'”
“It's a constant fear and stress that someone is going to come looking for you,” he said.
His lawyer, Karen Tjapkes, said his case is an apt example of the burden these bills put on ex-offenders.
“These guys are trying to get their lives on track and then a couple years later they are hit with this civil lawsuit to collect the fees. I don't think it's appropriate to do that to these individuals who are trying to get on with their lives and become productive citizens.”
According to research by the U.S. Department of Justice, Michigan became the first state to institute a correctional fee when it enacted legislation in 1846 authorizing counties to charge inmates for medical care.
But wasn't until the mid-1980s that states began to authorize daily housing fees for jails. In 1984, Michigan legislators approved a measure authorizing counties to charge inmates up to $60 a day for housing and to file civil suits to retrieve the money. By 2004, an estimated one-third of county jails in the United States were charging daily housing fees. Michigan has no statewide database on how many counties impose such fees.
In addition, all Michigan jail inmates are assessed a $12 fee at the time they are booked into jail. They face another $100 fee if they haven't paid it by discharge.
In 2015, ACLU of Ohio highlighted the impact of pay-to-stay housing fees on poor inmates in jails across the state. It cited numerous cases of ex-inmates who struggled after their release with housing bills up to $20,000 or more.
“Imagine that day you spent in jail also resulted in losing your job, and your sole source of income,” the report stated.
“If you fail to pay the fee when you are released, it may end up on your credit report. When you apply for a new job they may do a credit check and you could be denied employment. Desperate, you turn to illegal means to provide for your children. If you engage in this illegal behavior and are caught, you will face more fines, fees, and jail time,” the report’s authors wrote.
“(Inmates) are given every opportunity to work. The ones who are getting a bill are the ones who choose not to do that.” – Michelle Young, undersheriff, Kent County
ACLU of Michigan has also fought a parallel practice dubbed “pay or stay” in which poor defendants are jailed for failing for to pay court fines or fees, often for minor crimes. In a 2010 national report on what it termed “The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons, the ACLU cited courts in Michigan that routinely turn to court costs and fees for court-ordered attorneys as a means to boost revenue for the court.
That practice came under rising scrutiny following the 2014 death of Macomb County resident David Stojcevski, who died in jail from apparent drug withdrawal 17 days into a 30-day sentence. He was jailed for failing to pay a $772 fine for missing a court appearance on a careless driving charge.
In May, the Michigan Supreme Court instructed Michigan courts not to jail indigent defendants simply because they cannot afford to pay fees or fines.
Shelli Weisberg of ACLU Michigan said it's “the same problem” as imposing housing bills on inmates after they exit jail, and that she is concerned these fines and fees may continue despite the Supreme Court's guidelines.
“Court rules are just that. Not everyone follows them,” Weisberg said. “We need to make people aware just how far afield the practice of pay or stay has gone.”
Asserting offender responsibility
But in Ottawa County, jail administrator Capt. Steve Baar defended the jail's $50-a-day housing charge, saying it has broad support from the public. Baar said the county's been charging inmates a housing fee about 30 years.
“When we have groups of people on tours of the jail, it's a common question. More often than not, the reaction is that a person convicted of a crime should have some responsibility to pay for room and board,” Baar said.
He was unable to provide a breakdown on how much the county collects in housing fees each year or how much it costs to run the program.
Baar added that jail officials work with inmates to devise reasonable payment plans. Even so, he said the county collects less than 10 percent of assessed fees.
Baar rejected the premise that imposing housing charges on inmates makes it more likely they will return to jail.
“We don't issue arrest warrants for that. I don't think that's a reason they will be more likely to end up in jail. To me, that's an excuse.”
Kent County imposes a $21 daily housing charge. But according to Undersheriff Michelle Young, it exempts inmates who perform a variety of work details, as well as those who take part in self-improvement and educational programs offered by the jail.
“I believe it's a fair program,” Young said. “They are given every opportunity to work. The ones who are getting a bill are the ones who choose not to do that.”
Young also views the housing charges as a necessary tool to induce inmates to do the variety of work tasks needed at the jail.
“I need people in the kitchen every day. What is going to inspire an inmate to do that work?”
Kalamazoo County has no inmate housing fee. But in 2012, Sheriff Richard Fuller said, he was asked by county commissioners to look into instituting one. He came up with a proposed $10 daily charge, with an annual cap of $500. He viewed the more modest amount as a means of delivering a message of responsibility to inmates without damaging their chances at reintegration.
Fuller said he has serious reservations about anything more onerous.
“You have to ask yourself, 'What are you trying to accomplish?'” he said.
Eventually, Fuller said, commissioners decided not to pursue any housing charge. He wasn't disappointed.
Fuller said he is “very sympathetic” to the concern that steep housing fees can make it harder for an inmate to construct a productive life after jail.
“For the people who are going through our system and our jail, we should not be impeding them getting back in the flow of society.”