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How to reduce Michigan's corrections budget in the long term

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FLickr user H. Michael Karshis
Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

How much does crime really cost? Millions of dollars per day and billions per year. The high cost has jail and prison administrators seeking ways to ease this burden on taxpayers.

One way to do that is charging the inmates fees.

In Michigan, inmates are required to pay for necessities. It's called "pay to stay." Backers say it teaches the prisoners a lesson and keeps them from making frivolous and wasteful requests. But what happens when a prisoner's small paycheck doesn't cover the expenses?

A prisoner can be paroled with hundreds of dollars of fines hanging over their heads and wind up right back behind bars for not being able to pay up.

Natalie Holbrook is with the American Friends' Service Committee's Michigan Criminal Justice Program and she says, "It's not a new trend. People have been being charged for things in prisons and jails for years and years."

According to Holbrook, prisoners are allotted a certain number of necessities per month and if they need above this set limit they can be required to pay for items such as medical co-pay, undergarments, and toilet paper.

With cuts to our $2.2 billion dollar corrections budget, Holbrook says these cuts often can fall on the backs of prisoners who don't have the means to pay.

Holbrook estimates that prisoners make 17 cents per hour, or no more than $20 a month. She uses the example of prisoners paying for a medical co-pay of $5. That would be 25% of their monthly budget.

And expenses inside aren't the only problem. Holbrook says these fees during their stay make it more difficult for prisoners to save any money to get back on their feet when they're released.

"If we are going to make meaningful cuts to corrections and to prison spending, we have to get people out of the system and close prisons. It should not fall on the backs of prisoners," Holbrook says.

While Holbrook's focus is state prisons, jails often have a similar system. She says some jails in Michigan have a full pay-to-stay program that charges for housing and meals.

As for prisons, taxpayers often foot the bill for prisoners, and Holbrook estimates each prisoner costs $37,000 a year. And she says the way to reduce the cost of our criminal justice system is to send fewer people to prison and get people out of the system through parole reforms.

For opponents who believe those who commit crimes deserve the punishment of the monetary cost, Holbrook says, "I think that isolation is the way that they're paying for the crime. They're separated from society, they're separated from their family."

Holbrook advocates for better pay, suggesting $5 a day instead. And she says this would be feasible through reducing the prison population.

"Any kinds of cost savings that falls on the backs of inmates and prisoners – it doesn't make sense in the long term for big savings," Holbrook says. "We're setting up a cyclical system."

But Holbrook says she's cautiously hopeful. There's currently momentum to make changes to the parole system through presumptive parole.

"I think our governor is leaning towards a criminal justice reform agenda that is hopeful for the first time in years."

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