Inmate User Fees: Fiscal Fix or Mirage?

By Nolan, Pat | Corrections Today, August 2003 | Go to article overview

Inmate User Fees: Fiscal Fix or Mirage?


Nolan, Pat, Corrections Today


As states struggle with difficult budget choices in the face of looming deficits, some are considering charging inmates for their "room and board." While it may be tempting to levy such fees, as is being proposed in New York and Massachusetts, the results in states that already have some form of inmate fees indicate that they have derived little net revenue from inmates.

It costs more to administer inmate fees than is collected. The National Institute of Corrections reported that, "According to some agencies, the burden of tracking accounts and collecting fees is not matched by the revenues generated." The National Institute of Justice reports that one correctional administrator in Nevada stated, "Given the small volume of revenue collected, an inordinate amount of staff time is involved in collecting fees." If the fees are intended to alleviate the budget crunch for prisons, collecting fees makes little sense.

If the fees do not solve the revenue crunch, then what is behind the move to impose them? According to a report by the Georgia Department of Corrections, which was considering levying a fee for medical services. "The real purpose of co-payment is twofold: First, it is to discourage the overutilization of services ... Second, it is the political necessity of assuring the public that inmates are not getting a free ride." If a prison system is to consider levying fees on inmates, it should be explicit as to its motives and the expected outcomes. While charges for medical services have the benefit of reducing overutilization, charging fees for room and board has no such benefit.

Studies have shown that fees for medical services reduce demand, but contain important warnings. While fees for medical treatment have been shown to reduce demand by as much as 60 percent, there are troubling aspects to this trend. B. Jaye Anno, a respected expert in the field of correctional health care, has warned that it "fosters the creation of a two-tier system favoring the 'affluent,' while the indigent prisoner receives less care. Even a 10-cent or 25-cent co-payment fee is 'major' in the prison economy; certainly $5 or $10 per encounter would be prohibitive for inmates in most systems." Anno goes on to say that "it is a well-known fact, in the community as well as in prisons, that a small minority of persons consumes the vast majority of health services. These are generally persons with bona fide acute, chronic or terminal illnesses. Any co-payment system would have to include special provisions to minimize adverse impact on this group. …

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