The Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office has announced that is forgiving $509,888 worth of debt accrued by people incarcerated in the county jail.
Anyone who was incarcerated in the county jail from January 1, 2013 to December 31, 2020 will have any debt they accrued forgiven.
The sheriff's office is obligated to provide everyone incarcerated in the county jail with basic necessities. Each inmate gets a number of items free of charge: a comb, soap, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a razor. Anything beyond those items, even food, can be purchased at the commissary, or the jail's store. An incarcerated person needs money in their jail account to purchase items, and if you can't pay for those items, you accrue debt. Debt can also be accrued for doctor and nurse's visits, dentist visits, and booking fees.
The office says it didn't "aggressively pursue" non-payment of these debts, but acknowledged that the knowledge that someone owes money can be burdensome and stressful, particularly for those who had been previously incarcerated. It also discouraged family and friends from financially supporting an incarcerated person, particularly one who had previously spent time in jail: if that person already had debt on their jail account, any money deposited into that account automatically went to the debt.
Sheriff Jerry Clayton says this isn't a huge step, but it's still a step in the right direction.
"Will it just change the scope of everything? No, not really, but it’s just a small contributing factor. Folks that have been in and out of our jail that have this debt, now, as we get the public notice out, they know they don’t have this debt anymore," he says.
He says he hopes this decision will play a part in decreasing recidivism rates, by easing the transition from jail back into society.
"It’s sometimes the small things, that as you continue to add up, they become bigger things. And I think that if we're helping people reduce stress while incarcerated, and we help them reduce stress when they start to get out of jail, if you have one less thing that you have to worry about, maybe it better positions you to take the kind of actions that turn your life around to make you a valued member in the community," says Clayton.
Clayton says the sheriff's office is considering other fee reductions, such as phone fees, doctor and nurse fees, dentist fees, and barber fees, to further ease the financial burden of incarceration.