a bird and a bottle


Equal Justice For All?
April 29, 2007, 9:19 am
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, law, news, politics

I complain a lot about the criminal justice system. About the bad policies of mass incarceration, about the drug war, about the racism. And with good reason.

But this takes the cake.

According to yesterday’s NY Times, California has implemented a pay for prison system, in which wealthy people who have been convicted of non-violent crimes can pay about $82/day to live in what amounts to a dormitory, instead of the overcrowded and dangerous state jails to which they would normally be sent.

Here’s how it works (from the Times):

Many of the self-pay jails operate like secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world. You have to be in the know to even apply for entry, and even if the court approves your sentence there, jail administrators can operate like bouncers, rejecting anyone they wish.

Ah yes, the velvet rope of the prison system. Just what we need. To divert precious money and other resources from the state’s breaking prison system to house a relatively small number of low level offenders in posh digs. Sure, their fees offset their costs, but $82/day doesn’t go far in an expensive state prison — it’s a few hours of a corrections officer’s time, if that.

Certainly there have been white collar jails for a long time, and the wealthier incarcerees have often been offered their pick of “housing.” Even the Onion has poked fun at so-called white collar prisons, which are usually fairly posh and have minimum security. But this system seems particularly egregious.

And while I am all in favor of reducing the stigma against people who are incarcerated, this seems to offer that benefit to the very few:

For roughly $75 to $127 a day, these convicts — who are known in the self-pay parlance as “clients” — get a small cell behind a regular door, distance of some amplitude from violent offenders and, in some cases, the right to bring an iPod or computer on which to compose a novel, or perhaps a song.

I think the thing that struck me most about the article is that even the National Sheriff’s organization seems to think this is unfair:

“It seems to be to be a little unfair,” said Mike Jackson, the training manager of the National Sheriff’s Association. “Two people come in, have the same offense, and the guy who has money gets to pay to stay and the other doesn’t. The system is supposed to be equitable.

But then again, I think we gave up the farce that the system was equitable a long time ago. California’s adoption of this pay to stay program just makes it all the more obvious.

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3 Comments so far
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To add insult to injury, this system seems state-subsidized. If I’m not mistaken, the cost of imprisoning a person in the US is $40,000 a year, and I presume it’s higher when you have to provide special amenities as in the velvet rope prison. The cost of getting in is only $30,000 a year, so I’m pretty sure the state’s throwing a few bucks in, too.

Comment by Alon Levy

It’s definitely state-subsidized. $82/day or $0K doesn’t get you to the full cost of living there, especially, as you point out, when you consider the extra costs of such a luxe (comparatively) place. Sure, it’s still prison, but….

Comment by bean

“But then again, I think we gave up the farce that the system was equitable a long time ago. California’s adoption of this pay to stay program just makes it all the more obvious.”

Agreed!

Let’s hope that reformers pounce on this to highlight the deep inequalities in the prison system even without the $100/day velvet rope.

Comment by professorplum




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