And it wasn't The Onion. The Los Angeles Times story describes
prisoners who have been given the option by the courts and prosecutors of paying extra for jail accommodations at upgraded facilities.
The story also details some of what the inmates get in return for $100 a night: flat screen TVs, a computer and media room, and new beds. As recently as 2013, the city of Seal Beach
took out an ad in a local weekly paper touting the amenities that come with its pay-to-stay program.
The program is offered to all citizens who have been sentenced by the court and are allowed to serve their time in a city jail.
California allows people to serve their county jail sentences in city jails, and this perk is supposed to be reserved for misdemeanor crimes that were committed in the same county as the pay-to-stay facility. According to the Times story, however, judges sometimes allow felons and out-of-county offenders to take advantage of the program too. Relaxing the eligibility rules like this makes economic sense: technical disqualifications shouldn't stand in the way of a potential customer ready, willing, and able to pay for his accommodations, right?
Among the current participants in the program, according to the Times
: a man convicted of sexual battery against a woman he met on Match.com, and another who pleaded guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter after he crashed his Ferrari at age 18, killing his own cousin, a passenger.
Let's face it: the carefully-selected samples of the population at pay-to-stay facilities included in the Times article are not likely to engender a great deal of sympathy with the public. Another upgraded inmate pleaded no contest to sex with a minor. A former police officer who pleaded guilty to stalking and harassing his ex paid $32,000 for 272 days and was able to leave most days to work as a security guard and teach fitness classes.
It may seem unfair that a convicted criminal can leave jail to go to work, but this is a perk that benefits society as much as it does the inmate. Maintaining employment is a critical factor in avoiding recidivism. Turning a gainfully-employed defendant into an unemployed, desperate felon is a recipe for disaster. That's why we've long had work-release programs, and weekends-only sentencing options for certain crimes
These pay-to-stay programs may be extreme examples, but disparities in the conditions that rich and poor defendants face are nothing new.
Should the criminal justice system place a higher value on the lives of wealthy defendants than those of poor defendants? No, of course not. Should defendants who are financially able to shoulder some of the burden on the system at least have the option to do so? Yes, of course. Giving defendants the option to literally pay their debt to society might even achieve more of the traditional goals of punishment, at a fraction of the cost to you and me.
Take DUI and traffic offenses as another example. If you walk into any criminal courthouse, it's likely that its most economically diverse courtroom will be the DUI courtroom or traffic court. You'll see doctors
It's no coincidence that so many states have a pricey first-time offender program for DUI cases: pay an expensive fine, attend an expensive traffic class, undergo expensive drug evaluation, and you can often get the charges dropped and your record expunged. Courts and prosecutors figured out long ago that DUI defendants tend to have money, and -- despite all those TV ads warning of the perils of DUI -- these defendants can often pay their way out of a first conviction.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the most common crimes
among the pay-to-stay population are not assaults or sex crimes (4.5% combined). Nor are they illegal drug possession or sales (1.5% combined). It's overwhelmingly made up of driving violations (13.1%) and DUIs (66.2%).
Here's what may surprise you: pay-to-stay pr