Wednesday, July 17, 2019

New Hampshire to stop charging inmates for cost of incarceration

Last week New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu signed legislation that repealed a 1996 law that allowed the state to attempt to recoup the cost of incarcerating an inmate. The repeal came in the shadows of a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the practice. It will take effect in September and will not be retroactive.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, almost every state has some form of "pay to stay" legislation. This allows states to recoup at least some of the cost of incarceration of inmates. The amount and the circumstances under which they will be recoup vastly depends on the state. In New Hampshire, the law covered all types of incarceration and provides for reimbursement of room and board and the cost of medical care. There is a slight nuance in how the state can seek reimbursement. While a person is incarcerated, the state can seek reimbursement for medical treatment but has to consider the person's ability to pay. However, if the state waits until the person leaves jail, they could seek reimbursement for medical treatment, with no limit as to how much they can seek, for up to six years after the person leaves custody. The lawsuit that prompted the change in the law was related to a person in the latter position.

How is this handled by other states? Seeking reimbursement for medical care is less common than room and board. Maine only seeks reimbursement for room and board when a person is sentenced to a county jail and the amount is capped at $80 per day. In Vermont, room and board is only deducted from an inmate's earnings when they are in a work release program but is otherwise not collected. In my native North Carolina, the policy is very similar to what is done in Vermont. A prisoner is only charged when they are on a work release program, with the caveat however that the sentence must be 30 days or longer. North Carolina, Vermont, and Maine do not seek reimbursement for medical expenses. In my current home state of Virginia, the sheriff is allowed to establish a reimbursement program for room and board but can't charge an inmate more than $3 per day. Some localities, such as Richmond, have opted to take advantage of the law. Like New Hampshire, Virginia is allowed to recoup the cost of medical treatment, with no statutory limit on how much can be collected.

In March, I wrote about attempts by New Hampshire and other states to recoup the costs of providing a public defender. Hidden fees and payments associated with defense and incarceration do a disservice to the community and creates lingering issues for people who interact with the criminal justice system. As I mentioned in March, even a person who is found not guilty could be liable for paying their public defender. In this case, a person who has served time can receive a huge bill that holds them back from starting a new life and putting their past behind them.

I'm happy to see New Hampshire taking a big step towards dismantling a system that only serves to disadvantage people who have served their sentences and are ready to move forward with their lives.

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