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For more than 20 years Michigan communities have been able to charge jail inmates up to $60 per day for housing. The Michigan Legislature should repeal this statute, called the “Prisoner Reimbursement to the County Act,” and recognize the damage it’s doing to the goal of rehabilitating convicts.

Those who have been in jail already face challenges reintegrating into their communities. Adding a financial burden many have little hope of meeting is counterproductive.

Proponents of jail housing fees say penalties force criminals to take responsibility for their actions. But it’s just as like they’ll turn to additional crimes to meet the obligation.

The fees are not insignificant.

Macomb County, for example, charges $45 per day for housing. That’s more than $16,000 a year.

Those most likely to end up in jail make significantly less money than does the general population. The non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative found that prisoners had an average income of less than $20,000 per year before incarceration — 40 percent less than the national average.

People who serve time in jail often lose their car, home, and job. It’s unreasonable to expect the average prisoner to pay a year’s salary in fees while trying to readjust to society. The tab sets them up for failure.

Kent County has a more moderate approach. It charges $21 per day but allows inmates to work instead of paying the fee.

Work programs are an excellent alternative that counties should employ. In certain jobs and for the right inmates, the pay could surpass the amount needed to cover the fee, and the inmate could use the excess to get a start once they are free. This would also help teach them skills they’ll need to find jobs.

It’s questionable how much the fees benefit taxpayers. Macomb County raised $250,000 in fees last year, but spent $150,000 to collect the money. (The unpaid debt is often turned over to collection agencies.)

In the same year, it cost the county nearly $1.2 million to house inmates. The fees covered less than a tenth of total expenses, and it is not worth the burden it places on people trying to reestablish their lives.

A prisoner’s debt to society should be paid in full when he or she is released from jail. The government should not continue to penalize people who have served their time. The fees are the equivalent of a student loan, without the benefit of an education that will help better their lives.

The object of incarceration is to take dangerous people off the street, punish transgressors and provide a disincentive to criminal activity.

There’s a cost to society of enforcing criminal penalties, and it’s a necessary expense.

Trying to avoid it by adding a financial layer to an inmate’s punishment doesn’t save enough money to make it worth the damage it does to the prisoner’s chances for rehabilitation.

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