The most marked feature of the fiscal crisis on the correctional landscape has been a decline in the overall punitive discourse, policies, and technologies. States are giving up the death penalty; California is realigning justice with a focus on the community; and issues that were not considered viable, such as drug legalization, are now on the public agenda.
But the fiscal crisis didn’t only bring punitivism reversals and silver linings. With the good, we got some bad and ugly. And the ugly is the topic of tonight’s post.
Three recent bills on the Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committee agendas are all about rolling the costs of incarceration on… you guessed it… the inmates themselves. Here are some of the particulars. SB 1124 (Canella) Cost of Incarceration Remember the little theatre of the absurd from Riverside County, expecting inmates to pay $140 per night for their incarceration? Well, this beauty is in the same vein. Penal Code section 1203.1m currently authorizes the court to order reimbursement for the cost of incarceration if it finds the defendant has the ability to pay. This new bill would require the court hold a hearing for each and every defendant sentenced to state prison to determine his or her ability to pay all or some of the costs of incarceration. Keep in mind that defendants make very little money, if any, during incarceration, have very little by way of financial support from friends and family members, and most if not all lose their jobs as a consequence of incarceration. It is exceedingly difficult for a formerly incarcerated person to find a job after release. It’s therefore likely that many of these hearings would result in the unsurprising determination that a defendant would not be able to pay for his or her incarceration. This process then would result in an unnecessary expenditure of funds. AB 2261 (Valadao) Cost of Medical Visits Remember Brown v. Plata? Why didn’t all these wise judges think of the simple solution for the medical crisis in California prisons–charging the inmates themselves for their care? This bill removes the cap of the $3 fee a sheriff is allowed to charge for an inmate-initiated medical visit and would authorize a sheriff to establish an unlimited standardized fee. As opposed to the other travesties, this bill would require the defendants to pay while they’re in prison, where they make the princely sum of between 8 cents and 95 cents an hour. It’s rather likely, therefore, that this bill would discourage inmates from reporting illness, which has a number of costly and dangerous ramifications. First, this bill is likely to provoke a lawsuit, and I’ll be first in line to volunteer my help. Readers from Prison Law Office or from Rosen, Bien and Galvan: If this becomes reality I’m happy to put together an amicus brief. This, of course, means that additional resources will be spent on a costly, lengthy lawsuit, which will undoubtedly end in a federal court finding this travesty unconstitutional. Why not save us all the cost and hassle? Second, this bill poses an immediate public health danger to inmates, correctional staff, and the communities that will receive formerly incarcerated people upon their release. There is currently an epidemic (WC) of AIDS and Hepatitis C infections in state prisons and in poor communities to which formerly incarcerated people often return. California prisons have a Hepatitis C Virus infection rate of 40%. Third, this bill may disproportionally impact people with chronic health conditions or mentally challenged inmates.
incidentally, if you’re wondering why you have to pay for health care and have your health care questioned by the Supreme Court while inmates enjoy free health services, you might want to read this. AB 2357 (Galgiani) Cost of Assisting Law Enforcement Investigation Finally, this bill would authorize CDCR to require an inmate be temporarily removed from a facility to assist with the gathering of evidence and impose a fee for the removal. Current law allows for inmates to be temporarily removed from their cells to attend college classes, but this bill would replace that opportunity for mandatory assistance with an investigation. The scenario in which an inmate may be assisting law enforcement with the unveiling of potential suspects could put an inmate at risk of retaliation. This is a significant burden to place on inmates, who will likely not be willing to participate, let alone contribute their own meager funds to the investigation.
These are all exceedingly disturbing scenarios. There can be a debate about which aspects of incarceration constitute cruel and unusual punishment, but asking you to pay for punishment, even if it’s kind and usual, is absurd.