A former Georgia sheriff’s deputy, convicted for using a stun gun on a restrained detainee who later died alone in his cell, was sentenced on Friday to one month in jail and three years’ probation.
His conviction for cruelty of an inmate carried jail time of up to three years. But significantly shorter jail time was not the only way Chatham County superior court judge James Bass issued a more lenient sentence: he also allowed the former deputy to serve his time on the weekends.
While experts say weekend-only jail sentences are not unheard of, they’re not common, either. In fact, some say they’d like to see those sentences used more often – for defendants who aren’t members of law enforcement.
“It is the type of creative sentence that in one sense seems a great reform move because it allows people to serve time while keeping their jobs, thus promoting re-entry and life stability,” said Andrea Roth, an assistant professor at the UC Berkeley school of law. A similar remedy sees inmates allowed to serve time in a halfway house and attend work during the day, she said.
Roth, who is an expert in criminal law, said the weekend sentence is typically used for defendants who hold down a job that a judge finds “socially valuable” or when the individual is the “breadwinner for the family”.
“One would hope, however, that all defendants, and not just sheriff’s deputies, would get the benefit of such creative sentencing practices,” she said.
Last month, former Chatham County sheriff’s deputies Jason Kenny and Maxine Evans were found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the January death of 21-year-old Matthew Ajibade, a former Savannah College of Art and Design student. Though the manslaughter charge was dismissed, Kenny was found guilty of cruelty to an inmate, a felony.
Ajibade was taken into custody on domestic violence charges the evening of 1 January following an altercation with his girlfriend. His family has said Ajibade was having a manic bipolar disorder episode.
As deputies attempted to book him, Ajibade became “combative” and started a fight, according to the sheriff’s office. A video later released showed Kenny shocked Ajibade four times with a Taser, while the Nigerian man’s hands and feet were shackled. A local coroner ruled the student’s death a homicide by blunt force trauma. Kenny and eight other deputies were fired after the incident.
It's nice that the justice system is so considerate and makes every effort to ensure that people convicted of crimes can 'do the crime, do the time' and move on with their lives with minimal disruption.
Oh, but wait:
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A widespread practice in the US known as "pay to stay" charges jail inmates a daily fee while they are incarcerated. For those who are in and out of the local county or city lock-ups - particularly those struggling with addiction - that can lead to sky-high debts.
David Mahoney is $21,000 (£13,650) in debt. Not from credit cards. Not from school loans. He's accumulated the massive tab because of the days he spent locked up in the local jail in Marion, Ohio, which is a small town with a major heroin epidemic. Mahoney, a lanky 41-year-old, has struggled with addiction since he was a teenager, eventually stealing to fuel his habit. He got caught a lot, even burgling the same bar twice.
"The urge to use cocaine and crack - that's what it led to it. Once I start using there's no going back for me," he says.
Today, he's 14 months sober, and is a resident and employee of the Arnita Pittman Community Recovery Center, a sober living house on the northern edge of town. His counsellor says he is doing "awesome" and he hopes to one day to become an addiction counsellor himself.
But while Mahoney may have left his habits behind, he can't shake his debt. It has accumulated over 15 years of trouble with the law and is a separate charge from the restitution he must pay to the victims he stole from, or any administrative costs he has incurred by going to court.
It comes from a daily "pay-to-stay" fee - sometimes called "pay for stay" - that he was charged by the local jail, the Multi-County Correctional Center. He was charged $50 each day he spent in jail, plus a $100 booking fee. It works almost as if he checked into a hotel and got a bill when he checked out.
"Obviously, it's my fault I'm in the situation I am in. I'm trying to start over," he says. "People that end up in jail are usually down on their luck anyway. They're going through some trials and tribulations in life. Why focus on the people who are already struggling?"
According to Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel in the Brennan Center's Justice Program at New York University's School of Law, these types of fees are legal in nearly every state - only Washington DC and Hawaii do not have a law authorising pay-to-stay charges. Her group is working on a multi-year project to show what the revenue and costs are of these programmes around the country, but at the present time the practice remains largely unexamined.
"You're really shifting the onus onto the poorest members of our society in the justice system. If they can't pay their family members pay, or their grandmothers pay," she says.
In the aftermath of Ferguson, courts around the country from Michigan to Texas have been called out for using law enforcement as a revenue-generating arm of the local government. Brickner says pay-to-stay policies are just another example of attempting to make money off poor people caught in the criminal justice system.
"They simply don't work. People are coming out of jail with hundreds or thousands of dollars' worth of debt, and if you are a returning citizen, having that is just another albatross around your neck," he says. "It's a programme that maybe feels good to people who have a tough on crime mentality, but in fact it's sort of a fruitless exercise."
Dale Osborne, the jail administrator at the Multi-County Correctional Facility, makes the same argument for pay-to-stay that's been made since the practice became legal in Ohio in the mid-90s: "It offsets the expenses that the taxpayers are required to have," he says. "The more revenue I can generate within a facility, the less the taxpayers have to pay."
But he admits that while the programme bills for about $2m a year, they collect only about $60,000-$70,000. That's about a 3% collection rate. "If we lost the ability to have a pay-for-stay programme here I'm not going to have any huge heartache over the loss of it," he says.
The sum that is able to be collected doesn't go straight into the county coffers, either - the jail contracts with a company called Intellitech Corporation, which acts as a collections agent, sending letters and making phone calls to former inmates. If the debtor sends a check to Intellitech or arranges a payment plan with them, 30% of the money goes to the county and 70% goes to Intellitech.
According to the company's president, John Jacobs, Intellitech runs pay-to-stay programs in 12 counties in Ohio and in six other states. He says that by becoming the "Walmart" of pay-to-stay collections, his company makes the practice viable for counties.
"It's something we'll continue to do because we believe in it," he says, calling it "a win for the taxpayers and a win for the sheriff."
Free bonus story!
We usually lay blame at the feet of wardens and corrections officers for inmate recidivism. They didn’t offer enough treatment. The staff is abusive. Prisoners are discharged without education or job skills.
But the creeping trend toward requiring indigent defendants in the US legal system to pay for public defenders proves that recidivism starts before any defendants even hit a correctional facility – and that it springs directly from the process that was designed to defend them. They receive substandard representation that essentially guarantees convictions and incarceration. They are saddled with the bills for this representation and incarceration and then it becomes a crime not to pay them.
Since 1963, when the US supreme court decided Gideon v Wainwright, any defendant who can’t afford an attorney is entitled to have one appointed to protect the right to counsel as provided in the sixth amendment of the US constitution.
While the phrase “absolutely free” doesn’t appear in any of the supreme court decisions on the right to counsel, neither do the phrases “at cost” or “on layaway”. Public defenders are supposed to be appointed at no cost to the defendant – not because of a legal requirement, but out of fairness and common sense, to give everyone equal access to the justice system.
Yet 43 states charge indigent defendants for the cost of their counsel. This might not be as galling if the representation rendered to clients were adequate, but it’s not.