The inscription on the front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington says, “Equal justice under law.” But, in some southern California cities, justice is anything but equal, as the punishment you receive just might depend on how much you are willing and able to pay.
Several California cities have instituted “pay to stay” programs for offenders. These programs offer those who are convicted of certain crimes a chance to pay for “upgraded” prison cells.
KNBC reports that the family of an Orange County man paid $72,000 for one of these upgrades, as the man served two years for killing a classmate in a drunk driving accident. The “pay to stay” cells, which are offered in the cities of Seal Beach, Anaheim, Arcadia, Burbank, Glendale, Huntington Beach, Pasadena, Santa Ana, and Torrance, offer amenities such as unlocked cell doors, and the freedom to come and go as needed in order to go to work. The city of Fullerton allows “pay to stay” inmates the ability to have a telephone in the cell, their own tv, and a refrigerator, if they can afford the $127 a night price.
In Arcadia, offenders are encouraged to have someone drop them off at the jail if they are accepted into that city’s “pay to stay” program. But, if necessary, the offender can bring his or her car, and receive a temporary parking pass in order to keep it in the parking lot at the police station.
The description of city of Fremont’s program on the Fremont police website sounds like an advertisement for a four-star hotel:
With the approval of the sentencing Magistrate, men and women can now serve their jail sentence in our modern, clean and efficiently operated jail facility, which is an alternative to serving time in the Alameda County Jail.
The police site also says that those in the program are kept separate from other inmates, and that they will have access to day areas, showers, and phones. All this can be yours for just a $45 processing fee, and a nightly fee of $155.
“Pay to stay” is only for “good people” who made a “bad choice.”
“It’s good people who made a mistake, made a bad choice — and they have to pay the consequences,” says Anaheim police detective Laura Lomeli.
But, does having the ability to pay to improve their circumstances make someone a “good person?” And, under our American system of jurisprudence, how can everyone be considered equal under the law if those with money can buy themselves a more comfortable situation in jail?
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the Southern California ACLU, says,
What a terrible idea. What a slap in the face for the concept of equal justice for all. If it’s a public service — that should be offered to everyone regardless of their ability to pay.
Other than some restrictions that are placed on their freedom to move around at will, these programs hardly sound like punishment at all. What they sound like, instead, is a way for cash strapped municipalities to make money off of those who are willing and able to pay. In Ferguson, Missouri, impoverished members of the minority community are harassed with citations that they cannot afford to pay, and many are subsequently placed in jail. In California, rich white people are allowed to buy their way out of a standard jail term, and into an upgraded cell, away from the “riff raff” that inhabit the rest of the facility.
Isn’t part of the idea of jail supposed to be that it’s so harsh that you won’t want to go back there again? How will “pay to stay” participants get the message that jail is somewhere they don’t want to be, if the worst thing about their jail time is that they can’t get their favorite cable channel?
Here’s a report on pay to stay, from KNBC:
Featured image via screen shot from KNBC