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Prisoners Required to Pay for Time in Jail

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In mid-December, the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office decided to terminate a program which required prisoners to pay the government back for time spent in jail. The "pay-to-stay" program, as named by the sheriff's office, required incarcerated individuals to pay--after their release--$60 for each day they spent in jail, in order to cover the cost of expenses to the government.

The program, which was put into place on June 1 in order to generate money to compensate for budget deficits and defray the cost of housing prisoners, was of great concern to advocates of the homeless. "It's ridiculous to force people to pay for jail time, especially when the things these people are being criminalized for are basic human activities," says Bryan Pollard, the editor for Streetroots, a newspaper which advocates for and covers issues relevant to homeless people.

"Often, homeless people are put in jail just for being in public, for hanging out in public, or for having to live in public," he added. Pollard, who said he's rarely heard of anyone actually being charged for their time in jail, said he's relieved, nonetheless, that the program has been terminated. "I feel much, much better about this program being changed," he explained.

Tim Moore, the Chief Deputy of the Support Division at the Sheriff's Office, explained that the program was cut because it simply didn't generate any revenue. After their release, prisoners rarely had the money to pay to become re-established, let alone cover their expenses in jail.

Though the program no longer applies to prisoners who are often homeless and jobless--those people who are held in the Multnomah County Restitution Center (MCRC)--it still applies to prisoners who do have money. The programs known as the Turn-Self-In Program (TSI) and the Weekender Program still require inmates to pay for time spent after conviction. Both of these programs allow prisoners to maintain jobs while incarcerated; inmates are allowed to go to work, but must then go straight back to jail for the duration of time spent not working, usually evenings and weekends.

Criminals who still have jobs are sentenced to these programs at the discretion of a judge, for a broad range of crimes.

"This was a very controversial decision," said Moore, who explained that the board of County Commissioners was concerned about jeopardizing the financial stability of homeowners and parents who were incarcerated. Regardless, explained Moore, the decision was made by the Sheriff's office, and came down to which programs were lucrative, rather than which were more humane. Moore said that financial ruin as a result of the program is nearly impossible. "The debt is never turned over to a collection agency," he said.

However, even though homeless people are not currently being asked to pay, Oregon law still states that prisoners may be charged retroactively for time spent in jail. "A county may seek reimbursement from a person who is or was committed to the local correctional facility of the county or city upon conviction of a crime for any expense incurred by the county of city in safekeeping and maintaining the person," reads ORS 169.150. According to Moore, the county plans to continue charging prisoners from the Weekender and Turn-Self-In programs indefinitely.

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