Struggling with an $80-million budget shortfall and an influx of thousands of felons to local jails, Riverside County is turning to a captive audience to raise some much-needed cash: Convicts.
Criminals in county lockups will be billed up to $142 a day starting in December — fees to reimburse the county for food, clothing, healthcare, security and other jail expenses. To collect, the county will garnish wages and slap liens on homes once inmates are free.
County Supervisor Jeff Stone, a Temecula pharmacist who proposed the measure, acknowledges that the vast majority of convicted criminals will not be able to pay, since many are indigent and will not collect paychecks behind bars. But he estimates that up to 25% may be able to pay some amount, especially those jailed for white collar crimes, and that could bring in at least $6 million a year to the county.
"In these very challenging economic times, every dollar counts for counties, especially when you're $80 million in the hole," Stone said. "If you do the crime, then you're going to do the time and you're going to pay the dime."
Riverside County joins a number of other California counties that have adopted measures or are considering charging inmates to recoup jailing costs. In Northern California, Trinity County charges $20 a day and Glenn County charges up to $59 a day — though usually for inmates who serve time only on weekends. Placer County near Sacramento bills inmates up to $118 a day, and Madera County in the Central Valley $73 a day.
Under state law, a judge must first determine that a defendant has the ability to pay before a county can seek an incarceration fee. Those fees also are considered a low-priority collection, meaning defendants must first pay victim restitution and other court-ordered and state-mandated fees — from drug lab cleanup charges to seat belt penalties — before the county sees a penny.
Still, Stone expects other counties to follow suit in this era of budget slashing. He said Los Angeles and Orange counties, which do not charge similar inmate fees, would be wise to consider them.
"Think about Lindsay Lohan," Stone said of the oft-troubled actress and courthouse regular. "She's been costing the legal and judicial system in Los Angeles a tremendous amount of money.… I'm guessing she has the assets to pay for that."
In October, all newly convicted nonviolent, nonserious and non-sex-crime felons started being sent to county jails across California rather than to the overcrowded state prison system, part of the state's effort to abide by a federal court order to reduce the prison population.
Riverside County officials expect that to cost it far more than the $21 million provided by the state this year. Steve Thetford, chief deputy of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department's corrections division, said the county jails will hit maximum capacity next year as a result, forcing the county to expand its facilities and release low-risk inmates to work-release programs or home detention and perhaps pay to send some to lockups in other jurisdictions.
Stone argues that the incarceration will help defray a portion of the county's additional expenses.
Defense attorneys and legal experts say the financial burden of the Riverside County fee would make it more difficult for inmates to reenter society after their release. Sharon Dolovich, a law professor at UCLA, called the policy "wrongheaded," saying that some may be unable to make ends meet and may return to their criminal ways — winding up back in jail and ultimately costing the county more.
"What good is this doing other than making some people feel better?" said Dolovich, who teaches criminal and prison law. "The county should take the long view and think about the greater overall costs of failing to successfully reintegrate people into society."
Many convicted criminals leave jail already saddled with thousands of dollars in court-ordered fees. Those with the financial wherewithal to hire a private attorney also may have legal bills hanging over them.
"For a great number of people, the payment of those fees is very difficult and causes great difficulty in trying to get their lives back on track," Riverside defense attorney Steve Harmon said. "If somebody is out of jail and trying to make a living and feed their family, and then they get their wages garnished, they're going to be way behind the eight ball."
Harmon said that, under the Riverside County ordinance, convicted criminals who spend six months in jail could be on the hook for more than $25,000.
A judge determines a convict's ability to pay all or a portion of incarceration expenses based on that individual's assets, projected wages and financial obligations, such as outstanding debts and living expenses. The parents of juveniles who commit crimes also may be subject to the incarceration reimbursement fees.
In 2010, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood discouraged adoption of an incarceration fee, saying there were too many obstacles. Holding court hearings to determine a defendant's ability to pay would only further burden overcrowded judicial schedules, and given high unemployment and the inability of most inmates to pay, the revenue collected would be minimal, he stated.
Under the Riverside County ordinance, the incarceration fee will be collected by probation officials and will be enforced as a civil action — meaning failure to pay won't send anyone back to jail. Instead, the county will target bank accounts, investments, tax refunds, lottery winnings and assets such as property, boats and RVs. Wages will be garnished and liens will be placed on homes, property and businesses.
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the incarceration fee Tuesday with little discussion. In a memo to the board, the county counsel doubted the fee would generate a "significant increase in revenue" because most convicted criminals are jobless and have few assets.
Stone argued that even a modest amount of revenue would help, however. He also expressed little sympathy for the burden the fee placed on criminals, saying the financial pain would serve as another deterrent to breaking the law.
"It's all about accountability," Stone said. "If you commit a crime, you're not only going to be hurting yourself, you're going to be hurting your family."
Riverside County Public Defender Gary Windom said slapping fees on convicted criminals always has been politically popular and rarely faces resistance.
"The people who commit crimes have very little ability to go to their legislators and argue their case," Windom said.