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Why shouldn’t jail inmates pay toward the cost of feeding them?

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POSTED February 11, 2014 1:08 a.m.

Three hots and a cot.

That’s what you get courtesy of the taxpayers when you’re booked into jail.

And unlike taxpayers who have to pay for their own shelter and food, the folks accused of stealing your car, breaking into your house or driving around shooting guns at people get it all for free.

Nevada’s Elko County Sheriff Jim Pitts is about to change all of that. With the blessing of his bosses on the county commission, the jail is going to start charging inmates $6 a day for meals, $10 for each doctor’s visit, and $5 for initial booking into jail.

That is still a bargain. It costs Elko County taxpayers $85 a day per inmate to feed them and provide services such as medical care, housing and utilities. Even at just $6 a day for meals and a co-payment on the booking fee, the cash strapped county will save millions each year.

If an inmate is ultimately found innocent, their payments are reimbursed. Inmates aren’t charged if they work in jail. They do not pay anything if they are in jail for less than 24 hours. And the county doesn’t plan to shake down relatives. However, inmates can’t buy anything in the commissary unless their jail account is paid. That means they can’t purchase candy and such without covering a small part of the tab it costs to feed them.

Inmates that owe money when their sentence is up are free to go. Owing the county money doesn’t extend their jail time.

But if they are arrested again and have money on them, the cash they have is applied to the bill they racked up on their previous visit.

The American Civil Liberties Union is not thrilled.

They call it unconstitutional. They even go as far as to classify Pitts’ plan as cruel and unusual punishment if a government agency mandates inmates to pay for basic needs. Keep in mind the Supreme Court says it is OK for the government to mandate that law-abiding Americans pay for insurance. Not exactly comparing apples to apples but once the government and court conspire on any fruit once thought forbidden by the general language of the constitution then anything in the fruit bowl is fair game.

Pitts notes a lot of inmates get sick once they get put behind bars. In many cases they fake illness. It’s only fair they pay for medical services one way or another like every other American is now required to do under federal law.

Some states already allow counties to collect small co-payments from inmates for medical care based on their ability to pay. Since healthcare insurance is now a mandatory universal requirement courtesy of Congress, it wouldn’t be too big of a stretch to make all inmates pay. 

As for making inmates pay $6 toward three meals a day, why not?

They’d be hard pressed to feed themselves for that cheap on the outside.

If the argument is they have no choice but to be in jail, the Elko County plan wipes out the debt if they are found innocent. If they are willing to work for their meals they don’t have to pay.

So that leaves the guilty that are lazy.

Why should they get a free lunch?

The beauty of the Elko County plan is how they collect money owed.

They aren’t going to let anyone go hungry. They are not going to turn unpaid balances over to a collection agency. They’re not going to demand payment before release whether by credit card or cash.

Instead they are going to settle the previous bill the next time the inmate is booked on criminal charges.

This tells you two things.

There are a lot of habitual criminals in Elko County as there is elsewhere. They are the ones that are primarily making our streets unsafe. They also tend to have money on them when they are booked into jail. If not, the sheriff certainly wouldn’t have used deducting what the county is owed when previous guests of the jail are re-booked for another crime as the only means of the county effectively extracting a payment.

Let’s recap the plan. The innocent are not impacted. No one goes without if they don’t pay when they’re in jail. Relatives are not shaken down. No one is reporting them to a credit agency for nonpayment. And unlike with the Affordable Care Act, they’re not going to sic the IRS on them if they don’t pay.

 

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or (209) 249-3519.

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