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Who Can Afford To Go To Jail? - ThinkstockPhotos-482217885-c.jpg

Who can afford to go to jail?

If you’re ticked off at all by the extra fees airlines have added the past few years, just be thankful you’re not a “passenger” caught up in the U.S. criminal justice system.

I mean, you know, aside from the obvious reasons.

There was a time when incarceration, at the bare minimum, offered some solace to “guests” of the state via free room and board, miserable as it was, and other meager amenities.

Well, you future inmates out there reading this and dreaming of a behind bars Life of Riley, I’m sorry to report: the joyride is over.

Yup — the Hotel State Court is now charging for everything, and I mean everything, including services that are constitutionally mandated. The a la carte menu of goods and services now added to a convict’s bill include: arrest warrants; the collection of DNA samples; court administrative costs; rental of electronic monitoring devices for home stays, room and board for jail stays, and their parole and probation officer.

It gives new meaning to the phrase, “You’re being charged…”

NPR’s Joseph Shapiro recently concluded a year-long investigation into the new plethora of fines and fees, and the people imposing them.

In addition to the above-mentioned fees, consider these: construction of prisons and maintaining prison libraries; medication/health care; drug-testing (no refund for testing negative); and, if you miss your payments, assorted interest charges, late fees, and payment-plan fees. As to which states are levying them, the answer is: pretty much all of them. Failure to pay fines or fees, even those connected to misdemeanor offenses, often lands those unable (not “unwilling”) to pay them, in jail. Making this a completely “lose-lose” situation is the fact that sometimes the cost of warehousing the offender exceeds the penalties that are outstanding.

Back in elementary school, one of the first indelible lessons we were taught to instill civic pride in our country was learning how, contrary to Charles Dickens’ London, or even the pre-Civil War U.S., we don’t have debtors’ prisons that imprison people for the “crime” of being poor. But thanks to these ever-increasing fees and fines, both in number and amounts, which many find too onerous to pay, they’re back!

China still holds the dubious distinction of redefining “kicking someone when they’re down” for its policy of charging a condemned prisoner’s family for the bullet to kill him, but when a defendant has to pay, as he does in some states, for the cost of the prosecutor who calls on a jury to give him the death sentence, we’re within hailing distance of Chinese policy.

Indigent defendants are even being charged for the expense of being provided with a public defender, even though a half-century ago, the Supreme Court declared that those who can’t afford an attorney must be provided with one free of charge. Most states have found a loophole by charging an “application fee” for a PD, which, in Arkansas, runs as high as $400. This naturally causes some defendants to decline them, usually with disastrous results. If the accused subsequently pleads guilty or is convicted, some states tack on an additional charge. As these fees account for a substantial portion of a public defender’s salary, some defendants cite a conflict of interest: that the PD has a stake in the defendant being found guilty.

There are some scattered legislative attempts to address the most egregious inequities, but it really seems like the basis for a massive class-action lawsuit in waiting, except that since the “class” would comprise the indigent and the imprisoned, it’s never going to happen.

Ironically, one area where being poor might be considered a “plus” is on death-row, where it takes an average of four years before an appeals attorney is even assigned to an indigent condemned prisoner’s case, in essence granting the inmate a four-year lease on life on a process that will still likely drag on another couple decades, if not longer.

But probably the one thing this convict can’t afford happening–literally– is to be released after all that time in custody. The bill would be staggering.

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