Good work, Lois! Thank you for your dedicaton.
From: Daily Hampshire Gazette
NORTHAMPTON – A Northampton woman played a role in convincing the Legislature to take a second look at a move to charge inmates fees in Massachusetts.
Because of her efforts, the proposal was put on hold and a commission is being formed next month to study the feasibility of the idea.
“This is an example of a simply punitive idea that passes overnight with no debate and no one even knowing about it, and then it takes 30 years to undo the damage,” said Lois Ahrens, founder of the nonprofit Real Cost of Prisons Project, based in Northampton.
Ahrens started a grassroots campaign as soon as she learned of the fee proposal, which in her view is an idea “bad in every way.” She said the plan would be devastating to inmates hoping to successfully re-enter society.
“Talk in the world of corrections is supposed to be about re-entry, leaving incarceration with some semblance of recreating a life” Ahrens said.
Hampshire Sheriff Robert J. Garvey applauds the Legislature’s decision to study the proposal more closely, agreeing with Ahrens that it came up late in the session.
“The most glaring characteristic of the people that come through here is that they are from the lower socioeconomic part of society,” Garvey said. “Incarceration is very difficult on the families, they make tremendous sacrifices. … “It would break your heart to sit in our lobby on a visiting day. The people who will get hurt most by these fees are the families on the outside.”
Debate began in May, when the House and Senate approved two different budget amendments that would allow sheriffs to charge daily costs, as well as additional fees, for services such as medical and dental care for inmates. When the two legislative branches could not reconcile the amendments, the proposal was sidelined by the joint House-Senate Ways and Means Committee.
The idea of charging inmate fees has been controversial, with critics citing a return to “debtor’s prisons.” Supporters say it isn’t wrong to make an offender pay for their crimes.
Nevertheless, more and more states are turning to fees and surcharges to support criminal-justice costs and close budget gaps.
The House and Senate versions vary. The House amendment called for a daily $5 fee for inmates, plus additional fees for medical and dental services. The Senate version allowed for similar fees, but lacked specifics.
The new commission will study the issue and craft a reconciled version, or – as Ahrens and Garvey hope – reject the proposal completely.
Both House and Senate amendments agree that any outstanding debt should be forgiven two years after release, providing the person stays out of jail during that time.
But that is of no consolation to Ahrens, who says the policy would worsen the problems of people who are already marginalized.
“Whether the debt gets canceled in two years or six months, it doesn’t matter. It still shouldn’t be there, it is already a debtor’s prison,” said Ahrens.
From her work with prisoners, Ahrens said she believes most people incarcerated are not able to pay the fees proposed. She notes that people held in jails in Massachusetts are categorized as “presentenced,” which means they are waiting for their court date and have not yet been convicted of a crime.
“Most people are in jail because they can’t make bail or afford a lawyer,” she said. “They are there because they are poor, and on top of it all, they could end up waiting for trial for two or three months, accumulating these fees.”
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who backed the proposal, says he has long been in favor of imposing fees on inmates.
Hodgson said people not yet convicted, but held in jail awaiting trial, would indeed be charged and accumulate fees. He said the fees should be canceled if the person is found to be innocent at their court date. But if they are convicted, the fees attained from their time awaiting trial should stand.
Ahrens said she sees the fees as a rushed effort to create revenue, with inadequate consideration of how they affect a population that is already overwhelmingly poor.
“What good would it do the community of Northampton to have people who are trying to get their lives back on track and can’t work or get a place to live?” Ahrens asked. “What good does it do to help feed that cycle?”#On the other hand, Hodgson said he believes such people are a burden to taxpayers.
“The taxpayers need assistance, and if they (the inmates) don’t commit any crimes for two years after their release, their debt will be gone,” he said. “But if they do come back, they will be held responsible for the debt. It is an incentive to follow the rules upon release.”
In 1998, Hodgson began to charge “cost of care” to inmates, which included co-pays for medical services, haircuts and GED tests. That kicked off a legal skirmish. A legal services group sued Bristol County, saying it was unlawful to charge the fees, though a Boston court later ruled in the sheriff’s favor.
In 2002, Hodgson instituted a second policy that began charging inmates $5 a day to cover costs of incarceration, which again prompted a lawsuit. This time, a Fall River court ruled that only the Legislature had the authority to impose fees.
Hodgson appealed, but the lower court’s ruling was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Hodgson continues to push the policy, noting that over $750,000 in fees were collected before the procedure was halted in 2004.
Read the rest here: Source URL: http://www.gazettenet.com/2010/08/11/activist-led-drive-scrutinize-inmate-fees