Paying for Freedom - May 18, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Paying for Freedom

There's no surer way to perpetuate the cycle of poverty than by nickel-and-diming poor people who are already down on their luck. In our society, that includes most people in jail. But from pricey jailhouse phone calls to unpayable levels of cash bail, the American criminal justice system has an array of financial penalties that keep the downtrodden down — even in San Francisco, where cash rules even efforts meant to keep the unguilty from languishing behind bars.

Last year, a total of 19,436 people were booked into San Francisco County Jail. As of May 16, there were 1,317 people behind bars — of whom over half were there because they could not afford bail, in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $1 million, according to a recent city report. (Another 9 percent of jail inmates are homeless.)

Until recently, it cost $10 for these inmates to place a 10-minute phone call, a bill that was lowered after an uproar at the Board of Supervisors. But now, another jailhouse fee is creating a stir.

One way to allow people to stay out of jail while still keeping tabs on them is via an electronic monitoring device. Having low-risk offenders or people accused of petty crimes at home allows them to keep a job, enter treatment, and otherwise keep their lives together prior to trial, according to Kevin Paulson, a captain with the Sheriff's Department, who oversees alternatives to incarceration programs.

To stay out of jail and on a GPS ankle bracelet requires approval by the courts and the Sheriff's Department. The monitoring may also include sensors to detect if the participant consumes alcohol.

But there is no get-out-of-jail-free card. The program costs the accused $125 to apply for, plus $35 per day, for a minimum bill of over $1,000 per month.

(Compare that to the $100 per day it costs the city to house, feed, clothe, and provide medical care to jail inmates.)

Some city leaders postulated that the fees were the reason why only 187 people enrolled in the program last year.

Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents the Tenderloin, recently called the ankle-bracelet program “heavily underutilized” and raised concerns about fees adversely impacting those with low income.

In response to those concerns, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, who runs the city's jails and who assumed office in January, told Kim in an email that she is “in the process of reviewing the alternative program eligibility and fees structure.” Hennessy also insists no inmate has been kept in jail for an inability to pay: Of the 85 people currently on GPS devices, three are paying the full fee, 34 are paying a lower fee, and 14 had the fee waived, according to the Sheriff's Department.

So why pay a fee at all — and why $35 per day? Supervisor John Avalos says he wants there to be no fee for eligible would-be inmates to stay on GPS devices.

Kim says the issue may be raised during upcoming budget hearings, in which at least some GPS-monitored “prisoners” will be able to attend in person.