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Bill would raise cap on Va. inmates' rent to $5 a day

By John Hopkins

NORFOLK, Va. — The Chesapeake Correctional Center has raked in more than $735,000 by requiring inmates to pay a $1-a-day fee, and the rent could be about to go up.

The city's jail started charging inmates rent five years ago, automatically deducting dollars from their canteen accounts. The jail has collected $113,486 so far this fiscal year and is on course for a projected $162,291 , said Chief Deputy Jim O'Sullivan of the Chesapeake Sheriff's Office.

In Norfolk, the sheriff collected $397,296 last year from charging inmates a $1 a day , according to Bonita Harris, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office. Portsmouth collected $34,635 last year, said Lt. Col. William Rucker of the Portsmouth Sheriff's Office. Virginia Beach collected $341,379.

A bill co-sponsored by Del. Paula Miller, D-Norfolk, could soon allow jails to increase the amount charged to inmates from $1 to up to $5 per day to defray costs. Chesapeake will consider the increase if the bill becomes law .

"Absolutely," O'Sullivan said. "We're going to take a good look at it, and then I'll make a decision on what we're going to do. Like I said, in these difficult times we have to find a way to offset our cost and not pass it on to the taxpayers."

Chesapeake started collecting rent from inmates in 2004, joining Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth. A new law at the time allowed sheriffs and jail superintendents to "establish a program to charge inmates a reasonable fee, not to exceed $1 per day, to defray the costs associated with the prisoners' keep."

One lawmaker this year unsuccessfully pushed to raise the daily f ee to a maximum of $25 per inmate per day. Another bill (HB1919), which increases prison rent to an amount up to $5, passed the Senate this year on a unanimous vote. The bill passed the House on a vote of 94-4.

"Rather than asking our law-abiding citizens to pay more, we're asking the offenders to help pay for their incarceration cost," Miller said.

Critics contend that many inmates already must deal with heavy fines, court costs and other fees.

"We opposed it because we thought it added another financial burden to the inmates' families," said Carla Peterson, executive director of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants .

"These are, generally speaking, not wealthy people, and there's probably a number of them who are indigent as well," Peterson said.

Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged (RIHD) also opposed the bill, said Lillie Branch-Kennedy, president and executive director of the Richmond-based group.

"To ask them to pay additional fees to be in jail, that's not a deterrent to crime. That's punitive," Branch-Kennedy said.

Chesapeake has about 1,200 inmates in its facility, which has a bed capacity of 543. Rent is deducted from canteen accounts before inmates can spend their money on snacks and other items, O'Sullivan said.

If inmates don't have money , the rent will accrue and the jail will continue to go after debts even after inmates have left the facility. Since the program began in Chesapeake, the amounts collected by the jail has increased each year.

Virginia Beach was one of the first to charge inmates, launching its program the day the law went into effect on July 1, 2003, said Miller, who also is the spokeswoman for the Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office.

"More and more cities are doing this $1-a-day because a number of them have come to us basically to learn how to set up the program," Miller said.

It cost $63.93 per day to house an inmate in Virginia Beach, so it's important the inmates contribute, she said. If they are acquitted, they get their money back, Miller said.

If inmates are indigent, the debt goes on their record. If they later win the lottery or receive money from a tax return, the jail will be there to collect, Miller said.

"Our budgets were shrinking and shrinking, but our costs weren't going down," she said.

Copyright 2009 Virginian-Pilot

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