“Self-Pay” Luxury Jails

The tiering of American society has reached one more venerable institution: prisons. California’s self-pay jail system is profiled in the NYT today:

For roughly $75 to $127 a day, these convicts — who are known in the self-pay parlance as “clients” — get a small cell behind a regular door, distance of some amplitude from violent offenders and, in some cases, the right to bring an iPod or computer on which to compose a novel, or perhaps a song.

I’m all for making prisons more humane; as the article notes, “The California prison system, severely overcrowded, teeming with violence and infectious diseases and so dysfunctional that much of it is under court supervision, is one that anyone with the slightest means would most likely pay to avoid.” But I have a feeling such differential treatment may ultimately do more harm than good. By allowing the wealthiest to “exit” the normal jail system, we lose an important “voice” for making it decent.

I’m not saying that these relatively minor offenders should always be thrown in with hardened recidivists. However, I think we could make the system fairer by keying the “self-pay” amount to the income/wealth of the offender. Consider this approach to fines in Finland:

The officer pulled over [a wealthy entrepreneur’s] car and issued him a speeding ticket for driving 43 miles an hour in a 25-mile-an-hour zone. The fine: $71,400. . . . The staggering sum was no mistake. In Finland, traffic fines generally are based on two factors: the severity of the offense and the driver’s income. The concept has been embedded in Finnish law for decades: When it comes to crime, the wealthy should suffer as much as the poor. Indeed, sliding-scale financial penalties are also imposed for offenses ranging from shoplifting to securities-law violations.

If the punitive dimension of a prison term is to be diminished for those opting into self-pay jails, perhaps the payment should be reconceived as a fine, capable of inflicting something like the same amount of deterrence as the risk of infection and violence that they are buying their way out of.

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