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Rutgers professor discusses pay-to-stay practice, criminal justice reform

Brittany Friedman, an assistant professor of sociology and a faculty affiliate of the Program in Criminal Justice and the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers, said the U.S. has a long history of practices resembling pay-to-stay. – Photo by Courtesy of Brittany Friedman

Pay-to-stay, the practice of charging incarcerated individuals for accommodations, places a heavy burden on these individuals and hinders their rehabilitation, said Brittany Friedman, an assistant professor of sociology and a faculty affiliate of the Program in Criminal Justice and the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers.

She said the U.S. has an extensive history of punishment resembling pay-to-stay, such as debtors’ prisons and convict leasing, that is tied to disenfranchising the poor and working-class as well as racial minority groups. The practice of pay-to-stay began in 1935 with a Michigan law and was expanded in the 1980s, driven in part by financial crises.

“(Pay-to-stay is) really coming out of this logic of the rehabilitative ideal, which is this idea in punishment that we rehabilitate people, but being in a capitalist economy like we have here, ... they should compensate us for it,” Friedman said.

During the neoliberal era, governments began streamlining their budgets at the same time that incarceration grew dramatically, and pay-to-stay was seen as a way to address the expenses arising from mass incarceration, she said.

Friedman said the problem with charging people for using justice system resources is that fees become an incentive for revenue, which can be demonstrated in the U.S. Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department’s practices after the shooting of Michael Brown.

“They did that report to show that in Ferguson, they had a really big problem with revenue policing and charging people all these fees, and it incentivized all of these (police) stops as revenue, which has nothing to do with punishment,” she said. “It's just trying to make money off of people through the guise of punishment.”

Friedman said pay-to-stay is an ineffective means of recovering incarceration costs since only a small number of individuals can afford the bill for a prison stay, which may reach into the hundred-thousands.

“It is just a complete waste of taxpayers’ resources to even go after the money, and that's quite ironic, given pay-to-stay has been constantly framed as saving taxpayer dollars,” she said.

Friedman also said communities subject to criminalization have been seen as sources of funding for an inherently unequal justice system.

“On a human social inequality front, pay-to-stay is egregious,” she said. “Most people who are incarcerated are coming from poor and working-class backgrounds, disproportionately communities of color, and it's not (due to) crime rates, it's (due to) criminalization.”

There are many consequences that could make it more difficult for individuals to reenter society if they are not able to pay the fees, Friedman said. For example, they will have a poor credit score and potentially be locked out of employment, except for low-wage jobs. Additionally, the state may garnish wages from their paycheck or seize their bank account, she said.

“In some states like Florida ... they could go after your dependents or your spouse for the money,” Friedman said. “Your spouse or your kids could be sued by the state of Florida for an incarceration bill, even if you're deceased. It very much shows the dark side of what happens when you financialize criminal justice.”

Some states are making reforms regarding monetary sanctions, which include pay-to-stay, she said. The abolition of fees has also been recommended, and some states are implementing fee waivers, which account for how close someone is to the poverty line.

Friedman said fee waivers show promise, but the demonstration of poverty can become difficult. Those who are wealthy can hire a private attorney to help them dispute their monetary sanctions, but others do not have this ability, she said.

“(Fee waivers) could be helpful (as a) first step, but I think that we should ultimately be moving toward the abolition of fees, which would hopefully force justice systems to shrink, as opposed to constantly growing and then increasing fees in order to pay for it,” Friedman said. “Those should be the goals: decarceration, shrinking the system and eventually abolishing fees.”

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