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Prisoners Cannot Be Charged Board, Court Says

Five dollars a night would be a steal at any other place of lodging, but the patrons of the county jail in Dartmouth, Mass., had certainly not shopped around for their overnight accommodations. Going to jail was punishment enough, at least they could expect three squares and a place to sleep.

But for the sheriff who runs the jail, it was all about teaching prisoners financial responsibility. In 2002, he launched his Inmate Financial Responsibility Program, charging prisoners $5 a day as a "cost of care" fee, along with other fees for additional services. These other fees included $5 for medical appointments, $3 for prescriptions, $5 for eyeglasses, $5 for haircuts, and $12.50 to take the GED exam. Over the years, the sheriff collected some $750,000 from prisoners.

Now, he will have to pay them back, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that he had no authority to impose the fees. In Souza v. Sheriff of Bristol County, the SJC rejected the sheriff's argument that common law traditions dating back to the early days of English history gave him this power.

The SJC said that only the legislature could decide to impose such fees on prisoners. "Had the Legislature intended to authorize the sheriff to impose the challenged fees, it would have said so expressly as it had done with other fees," Justice Roderick L. Ireland wrote for a unanimous court. "Thus, in the absence of specific legislative authority for the challenged fees, they are invalid."

The attorney who represented the prisoners, James R. Pingeon of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, told The Boston Globe that the ruling will require the sheriff to return about $750,000 to hundreds of current and former prisoners, some of whom will receive more than $1,000. Since a lower court ruled in 2004 that the fees were unlawful, the sheriff has held the funds in an escrow account.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on January 6, 2010 at 12:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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