A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union should put to rest any thoughts of further expanding pay-to-stay jail policies in Ohio. It should encourage leaders in the approximately 60 counties that have implemented pay-to-stay to reconsider what has become an unfair and inefficient practice.
The report, issued late last month, was based on an in-depth examination of fees charged at three jails, in Fairfield, Hamilton and Athens counties. Although the jails had different types and sizes of fees, including booking fees, daily fees and charges for medical care and other expenses, the bottom line showed that pay-to-stay just doesn’t add up. (Fairfield ended its policy last year.)
Although pay-to-stay may seem politically popular, as it has from time to time in Summit County, although never implemented here, the concept founders on the reality that at least 80 percent of jail inmates are indigent. They don’t have money to pay. More, as the ACLU points out, those who do have some financial resources often see their savings erased. They leave prison broke and with a conviction that makes employment difficult.
The pay-to-stay policy fails in another way. It doesn’t generate much revenue for jail operations. The ACLU report showed that high fees and aggressive collection practices backfire, with low-income people no more likely to pay what they owe and collection agencies adding significant costs.
Many county jails do face a financial squeeze, with cuts in state funding to local governments among the causes. The report correctly concludes that the real answer to rising jail costs is to keep low-level offenders out of jail, reducing dramatically the number of inmates.
Fortunately, Gov. John Kasich has been pressing forward on this front. Reform of state sentencing laws and investment in community-based re-entry programs promise to reduce jail costs and contribute more broadly to communities. Diverting inmates from a path that leads to repeat offenses and toward more stable, productive lives makes far more sense for local economies than pay-to-stay.