The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio is calling for 40 full-service jail facilities in the state, including the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio in Stryker, to stop charging their inmates a daily rate for incarceration.
In its report released Tuesday, “In Jail & In Debt: Ohio’s Pay-to-Stay Fees,” the organization asserts the per diem fee keeps the inmates in debt and robs them of opportunities long after they’re released. It proposes the jail facilities look at other ways to gather revenue pinched tight by the economy.
But CCNO’s executive director says the pay-to-stay program is legal under state statutes, and the ACLU report makes incorrect assumptions about it.
The year-long study culled information from 2014 record requests made to every full-service jail in Ohio. Mike Brickner, ACLU senior policy director, said it focused on northwest Ohio because CCNO charges some of the highest amounts for booking and a per diem rate, $100 and $68.76, respectively.
He said the study was convened because the pay-to-stay program has been practiced in the state since the 1990s “but there has never been an in-depth look at it.”
Brickner said it was discovered that many people, at least in neighboring Lucas County, didn’t know CCNO inmates were being charged for costs. “There’s a lot of discussion and education in this county that needs to be had,” he said.
The ACLU isn’t claiming that pay-to-stay programs result in the equivalent of debtors’ prison, in which debtors are jailed for their inability to pay. Brickner said, however, the impact of owing a large sum of money makes it hard for inmates to successfully reenter the community.
“It takes away those opportunities. It’s almost like sending them right back to prison,” he said. “Very quickly, you can drown in this type of debt.”
The ACLU understands the financial strain the jails experience due to budget cuts, Brickner said. However, most of their inmates are poor, “and balancing the budget on the backs of people –that’s never going to be a good strategy if their debt is taking away opportunities and preventing them from becoming a productive member of society.”
Former inmates carrying around that debt are more likely to pursue illegal activities to lessen it and end up back in jail, he said.
Derrick Crawford understands all too well the consequences of carrying a pay-to-stay debt. The Toledoan spent less than six months as a CCNO inmate but was released with a roughly $12,000 bill. He was declared indigent in court, but said he has to pay up if he wants his name and credit cleared.
“Basically, you really have no choice. You have to sign for it,” he said of the program. “I was kind of discombobulated. I pay taxes. How can I be charged with something that’s already paid for?”
The debt will make it difficult to realize his dream of starting a business, Crawford said. Especially since it will reveal his prior incarceration.
“That’s going to show up. Banking and business is very conservative. They do pay attention to such things,” he said.
He’s currently in school through a WSOS Community Action grant through the U.S. Department of Labor, and hopes to be back in the workforce soon. That’s when he’ll attempt to gradually pay off his debt.
Crawford called the pay-to-stay program capitalism at its worst.
“It’s preying on a person who can’t financially pay it,” he said. “At the end of the day you can’t place a burden on a person who’s trying to pull himself up. It limits the type of work you can do. Make it easier. I just want a fair chance.”
Crawford said he could try to complain, “but when you’re a small person, you’re not big enough for people to hear. It’s not going to the right ears.”
CCNO’s board of directors instituted the nationwide program in 2009, in the midst of the country’s downward economic spiral. The previous year the facility was forced to make $800,000 in budget cuts, most notably within personnel. Additional cuts were made in 2009 and 2010.
During the same period, CCNO’s six members–Fulton, Henry, Williams, Defiance, and Lucas counties, and the City of Toledo–were finding it increasingly difficult to make their quarterly payments.
Jim Dennis, CCNO executive director, said pay-to-stay was adopted to offset expenses, “and since we started we really haven’t looked back.”
The facility’s inmates pay a booking fee of $100, which is reimbursed if the inmate isn’t convicted within 180 days. If sentenced, inmates are charged a $68.76 per diem rate to be housed. That rate accrues until they leave the facility, at which time they’re billed for the full amount.
Beginning Jan. 1, CCNO’s per diem rate will increase to about $72.
Some inmates pay a percentage during their pretrial status. If the court declares them indigent they’re not required to pay the bill, and CCNO declines to take legal action against them or lengthen their jail time as a result.
“Everybody that walks out the door is going to get a bill unless the judge declares them indigent before they go,” Dennis said.
From 2010 to 2014, CCNO collected a total of $57,635.48 in pay-to-stay fees from 55 inmate beds reserved for Fulton County inmates. Over that five-year period a combined total of more than $500,000 has been collected by the facility from the all of members’ inmate beds. That amount is less than one percent of what is currently owed, and has been sent back to the participating jurisdictions.
The amount includes revenue from CCNO’s contract with Intellitech, a Youngstown collection service. Over the five-year pay-to-stay period the service has recovered $37,901.46 from Fulton County inmates and $177,031.36 overall.
“Some people would say a little bit’s better than nothing,” Dennis said.
A federal court consent decree makes pay-to-stay legal in Ohio. “Everything that’s being done is being done according to state statutes,” Dennis said.
According to the Ohio Revised Code, certain costs may be charged to inmates by a jail facility, including a processing fee when the inmate is booked and a daily fee for room and board once they’re sentenced.
The ORC states the reimbursement will be credited to the general fund of “the political subdivision that incurred the expense…”
But the ACLU is philosophically opposed to the concept, and its report paints an incorrect portrait of the program, Dennis said.
“They leave the assumption out there that indigency is irrelevant. And it’s very relevant,” Dennis asserted. “Them creating a report where they did not go out of their way to interview us is unfair. (They suggest) if we charge (inmates) we create a debtors prison, and that’s not what this is about.”
He said what bothers him is, “They made general assumptions about it, and they never contacted me.” Dennis said the organization is using the current report to emphasize a similar report it released in 2012.
In fact, the ACLU accepted an invitation from Intellitech to visit the company and view its operations, he added.
Fulton County Sheriff Roy Miller, who sits on CCNO’s board of directors, said the judicial system, law enforcement, and the courts realize pay-to-stay isn’t a moneymaker. “The taxpayers are already paying it. This is just a way to collect some of that back,” he said.
The board is aware of complaints about the program, but he doesn’t foresee any action to remove or revise the policy.
Brickner said the jail facilities argue they need a way to plug their budget deficits. He said one way to accomplish that is to house fewer people, most notably those who are assessed as non-threatening but await trial in jail because they can’t pay bail.
“We need stronger pretrial release programs so jails are less populated,” he said. “Somebody picked up for shoplifting doesn’t need to spend a day or two in jail awaiting trial.”
He said the ACLU report shows a number of the state’s counties and jail have dropped pay-to-stay because the program was counter-productive. “There are more and more sheriffs and commissioners in the justice system that understand that this is not a smart approach to justice.”
And he wouldn’t dismiss the possibility the ACLU will file suit to stop the program.
“I can’t predict the future. We always keep litigation as a tool on the table to effect social change, but we always prefer to resolve things without it,” he said.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.