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Globe Editorial

Prisons: Don’t burden inmates’ families

February 4, 2010

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Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson’s attempt to charge prisoners for their upkeep might sound like a reasonable method of saving taxpayers money - and confronting criminals with the consequences of their own actions to boot. Yet there’s more to crime policy than looking tough, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court sensibly struck down his effort earlier this month. Hodgson vowed to ask the Legislature for permission to reinstate the charge, but lawmakers should let the high court’s verdict stand - if only to save prisoners’ families from shouldering an even heavier burden than they already do.

While Massachusetts law allows the state Department of Correction to charge prisoners for haircuts, Hodgson instituted a policy in 2002 that went further. Prisoners awaiting detention or serving their sentences at the Bristol County jail would have to pay a $5 per day fee, to be deducted from their accounts with the prison. Yet because of the lack of work-release or other jobs at the jail, the only way prisoners could get money into those accounts was to ask their families and friends to contribute.

Criminal-justice experts generally view relatives as helpful in encouraging convicts to stay out of trouble upon their release. Hodgson’s proposal could fray those vital connections.

Yet when the SJC struck down Hodgson’s fees, it wasn’t ruling on the basic unfairness of adding to families’ expenses. It merely concluded that Hodgson lacked the power in imposing a fee that wasn’t explicitly allowed by state law. The Legislature shouldn’t authorize the fee now.

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