Going to jail costs inmates more than just time (copy)
When Hailey Staggie completed her rider program, she was re-entering the workforce with no job, no driver’s license and more than $4,000 in debt to the judicial system that had imprisoned her.
Staggie has since found work and managed to stabilize her life with the help of family members. Others aren’t as lucky. A 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative found ex-offenders have an unemployment rate of 27 percent, which can make it difficult for them to cover expenses related to their prosecution and incarceration.
Fines in criminal cases can range from a few hundred dollars for misdemeanors to six figures for major crimes such as first-degree arson.
On top of fines, offenders may have to pay restitution for any damage to the victim’s property, medical expenses or financial loss caused by missing work.
Staggie was charged with multiple crimes in 2016. Most of them were infractions and misdemeanors related to driving laws: driving with a suspended license, failure to provide insurance, as well as drug charges.
The most serious charge came in March 2016 when Staggie was charged with a felony after an officer found methamphetamine in her car. She was sent first to a specialty court, then a rider program. Staggie was released on probation in December 2017.
When Staggie left her rider program for probation, she owed the state $4,406 in fines from six separate cases. With help from her family, she was able to cover $1,875 of those fines, the total for her cases involving traffic violations and misdemeanors. Some of those fines were also covered because Staggie worked while incarcerated.
Fines such as those levied against Staggie can be a barrier for offenders re-entering society.
Alexandra Natapoff, the author of “Punishment Without Crime,” told NPR’s “Fresh Air” recently that “one of the particularly burdensome and inegalitarian aspects of low-level offenses is the effect of imposing fines and fees on misdemeanor defendants.”
Natapoff is a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine. She spent three years as an assistant federal public defender in Baltimore in the early 2000s.
Staggie needed to pay the nearly $2,000 in fines in order to renew her suspended driver’s license. Without that license, she said she would have had greater difficulty finding a job to pay off the remaining fines.
Staggie said the fines were fair, because she was the one who committed those crimes, but added she would like to know where that money went.
“I don’t know where my money’s going, I just know that I have to pay it or I go to jail,” Staggie said.
Natapoff said offenders incur debt in the form of fines, fees, bail and other monetary penalties.
“And for the low-income individuals who typically, you know, represent the average person who encounters the misdemeanor system, that debt can be crushing,” Natapoff told NPR.
“It can be unpayable, so much so that they end up spending time in jail that they otherwise wouldn’t have spent.”
Bonneville County Treasurer Mark Hansen, County Clerk Penny Manning and 7th Judicial District Trial Court Administrator Tammie Whyte all said they were unsure how much money the county received in funds or what it was spent on. Whyte said a records request would need to be sent to the Idaho Supreme Court’s administrative director to determine what happens to the fines.
The fines represent only the cost inmates pay before stepping into a jail. Once inside, the county can charge inmates $25 per day spent in jail, up to a maximum of $500.
Then there is commissary. Staggie said the prison had more affordable prices than the Bonneville County Jail. A package of ramen noodles would cost a quarter in prison, but a dollar in the jail.
Staggie said she also had to buy her own hygienic supplies, because those provided by the jail would barely last a week, and cost more than equivalent supplies on store shelves.
Phone calls also add to the cost, with inmates paying a quarter a minute to make calls in jail and 11 cents a minute in prison. Staggie said she would limit her calls to family to a couple of minutes, watching the time to make sure she didn’t spend too much.
Staggie’s situation has improved since she served her time. Before, she was unemployed, couch surfing for a place to sleep and making money by selling drugs. Since leaving prison, Staggie no longer uses drugs, has a job and home, and counsels other former inmates who struggle with drug addiction. She considered studying to be a drug counselor, but decided against it because she wants to eventually leave that part of her life behind.
Now Staggie is paying $50 a month on her fines, along with a $60 fee for being on supervised probation. At this rate it will be another three years before she has paid her debt to society. She’d like to put the debt behind her, but for now that’s not an option.
“I can’t just pull $2,000 out of my pocket,” Staggie said.