News Story

Michigan Jails’ ‘Pay-To-Stay’ Jail Fees Stir Controversy

Critics say charges impose disparate burden on poor; supporters cite fairness to taxpayers

“Pay-to-stay” is little known practice of county jails throughout Michigan. Jails can charge inmates from $20 to $60 per day (the maximum under state law), which can leave an individual with thousands of dollars of debt upon release.

For example, in Jackson County, the average inmate spends 120 days in jail, according to county data. An inmate is charged $32 per day, which means the average inmate racks up a bill of $3,840.

John Cooper, policy director for the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, said that fees can make it difficult for inmates to make a successful return to society. Cooper said many inmates can lose their job, housing and transportation while incarcerated.

“The jail housing fees imposed by many counties in Michigan are a significant additional barrier to success after incarceration,” Cooper said in an email. “The people impacted by these fees are disproportionately poor to begin with, and the fees from even a short jail stay — on top of other collateral consequences — can become a long-term barrier to success in the community.”

Cooper said the costs of maintaining county jails should be borne by the taxpayers.

“At a minimum, counties should offer alternative ways to pay — such as through work while incarcerated, or community service afterward — so that individuals that lack the financial resources to pay have an alternative means to do so,” Cooper said.

In 2016, the Michigan Supreme Court issued new rules prohibiting a court from sending a person to jail for not paying fines or fees without considering the individual’s ability to pay. Judges have the discretion to waive the costs or permit an installment plan.

State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said charging the inmates is sound policy. Jones was the Eaton County jail administrator for four years before running for legislative office. He said 13 years ago, he was told it cost the Eaton County jail $42.50 a day to house an inmate, a cost that includes salaries and overhead expense.

“I don’t see any reason why you would not want to charge somebody if they have the money,” Jones said. “We don’t go around arresting people who don’t pay it. There is no debtor’s prison. If they don’t pay it, it just goes on their credit record.”

The Leelanau County jail charges its inmates $15 a day and the average stay in jail is 15 days.

Lt. Todd Roush of Leelanau County Sheriff's Office said inmates are only charged for their stay if they are convicted of the crime.

“Counties are using tax payer dollars to run and finance a jail operation, and I believe the practice of recouping some of the costs of a jail stay from those who committed and were convicted of those crimes has merit,” Roush said in an email. “As for our facility, most inmates are not serving long sentences, therefore they are not racking up thousands upon thousands of dollars in jail debt. For those that have a substantial amount due, if they take the responsibility to make good faith payments, or call and set up a plan, we will not send their debt to a collection agency, which will keep it off their credit report.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.