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April 29, 2007

Money changes everything ... including jail

Cyndi Lauper fans have long known that Money Changes Everything (YouTube clip here).  The New York Times today has this interesting article spotlighting that this is also true for jail experiences in California.  The article is headlined "For $82 a Day, Booking a Cell in a 5-Star Jail," and here is a snippet:

Anyone convicted of a crime knows a debt to society often must be paid in jail. But a slice of Californians willing to supplement that debt with cash (no personal checks, please) are finding that the time can be almost bearable.

For offenders whose crimes are usually relatively minor (carjackers should not bother) and whose bank accounts remain lofty, a dozen or so city jails across the state offer pay-to-stay upgrades. Theirs are a clean, quiet, if not exactly recherché alternative to the standard county jails, where the walls are bars, the fellow inmates are hardened and privileges are few....

For roughly $75 to $127 a day, these convicts — who are known in the self-pay parlance as “clients” — get a small cell behind a regular door, distance of some amplitude from violent offenders and, in some cases, the right to bring an iPod or computer on which to compose a novel, or perhaps a song. 

Many of the overnighters are granted work furlough, enabling them to do most of their time on the job, returning to the jail simply to go to bed (often following a strip search, which granted is not so five-star).  The clients usually share a cell, but otherwise mix little with the ordinary nonpaying inmates, who tend to be people arrested and awaiting arraignment, or federal prisoners on trial or awaiting deportation and simply passing through.

At Concurring Opinions, this post suggests there ought to be a sliding-scale approach to all the financial aspects of criminal sanctions.

April 29, 2007 at 07:40 AM | Permalink


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In 2005 a member of the Saudi royal family agreed to plead guilty to motor vehicle homicide on the condition that he be allowed to serve out his sentence at the nice jail on the resort island of Martha's Vineyard rather than the crowded Suffolk County jail in Boston with all its nasty low class people.

The jail is within sight of Chappaquiddick island, the site of another notable drunk-driving homicide resulting in a lenient sentence due to the offender's belonging to a royal family.

Posted by: John Carr | Apr 29, 2007 1:30:07 PM

Considering that Kennedy’s sentence was suspended, the choice of which prison that he would serve his sentence at doesn’t seem to make much difference. Therefore, perhaps you should revisit your analysis. Whether this sentence was lenient, in light of the substantive law at the time, and the dearth of proof, as well as the actual sentence he would have received is unclear. Likewise, if I recall correctly, in Massachusetts, a specific facility can’t be a condition of a guilty plea. Like the federal system, the judge can make are recommendation, but it doesn’t bind their department of corrections.

As to the above article, I think it is a great idea that non-violent offenders be allowed to “upgrade” their accommodations. As the administrators point out, their cash helps support the rest of the jail, and they are fairly “low maintenance.” Unless people are arguing that their inherent danger from other inmates is a part of rehabilitation or deterrence, then most of “corrections”-based arguments against such upgrades are probably political.

Secondly, all of the inmates profiled seem to, quite frankly, be better people than your typical criminal. They are educated and/or committed their lives to public service. So, I don’t see a reason to punish them too harashly, beyond the confinement needed to teach them a lesson. Sure, if they were poor, the only way to get through to them is by treating them considerably worse than they would be treated otherwise, but since these people are middle-class, the current state of affairs seems quite progressive.

Setting aside the fact that rich people are better people, and that it is easier to teach them a lesson in not acting like a poor person (since poor people tend to commit moving violations and steal), I do see some unfairness in letting these people that CAN pay avoid the harsh treatment at the hands of fellow inmates and disrespectful guards. But, this isn’t the first class-based difference in criminal justice. Perhaps if we could equalize the application of the 4th and 5th amendments (I think we are doing well w/r/t to the 6th in many jurisdictions), we could look closer at this.

Posted by: S.cotus | Apr 29, 2007 3:23:09 PM

On first reading I agreed with you, S.cotus. There is a flaw in that argument, however, and that is if congresspeople and power brokers are allowed this special treatment they have NO incentive to care about harsh laws or prison conditions.

Posted by: George | Apr 29, 2007 4:24:39 PM

There is little incentive to care about harsh laws or prison conditions, anyway, since Congresspeople (and most “elites”) are generally divorced from the conditions that lead them to prison, anyway. They are generally not subject to Terry stops, or any type of random vehicle stop. They live in houses which are beyond the prying eyes of most police.

Posted by: S.cotus | Apr 30, 2007 6:28:33 AM

Minor comment on the musical allusion -- the Cyndi Lauper version was a cover...original done by the Brains

Posted by: andy | Apr 30, 2007 9:13:11 AM

George, The only way the get Congressmen and judges and the like to understand the way life is for the kind of people that end up in jail (usually called “those people”) is:

1) eliminate “special” license plates for them (I always thought they were a security risk, anyway); and

2) create a special task force of police that randomly stop them for no reason or any reason at all (a computer would generate their pretenses), one in every 10 of those stops would result in an arrest, resulting in elites missing an average of 10 workdays a year due to arrests and/or court appearances.

Since this isn't going to happen, the best we can do is help those on the "margins" of those people (i.e. the middle class with responsibility problems) avoid the rough edges of the criminal justice system.

Posted by: S.cotus | Apr 30, 2007 9:38:01 AM

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