Miami Herald

Jail time in Miami-Dade will soon be free after county commissioners voted to eliminate fees for booking, medical care, ankle bracelets and other detention expenses currently billed to inmates.

While people in jail get billed $25 for being booked and $15 per doctor’s visit, many low-income inmates don’t pay. Tuesday’s vote erases $24 million worth of inmate debt the county considers “unlikely to be recovered” in a corrections system where small amounts of money can keep someone in jail even after a judge has cleared them for release.

“I had so many clients who couldn’t get out of jail because they didn’t have someone who could put the money up for them,” said Maya Ragsdale, a former public defender, said of the $128 an inmate must pay the county’s Corrections Department when granted home detention by a judge.

The fee covers the $100 hook-up fee for a court-approved ankle monitor, plus two weeks in advance of the $2 daily monitoring charge. “That’s actually a lot of money for somebody who is incarcerated,” Ragsdale said.

READ MORE: Miami-Dade jails charge $2 a day for room and board. Few pay: Inmates owe $72 million

Ragsdale is now co-executive director of Beyond the Bars, a Miami nonprofit that’s advocated for making jail less expensive for inmates in Miami-Dade.

In 2022, county commissioners voted to eliminate the Corrections Department’s $2 daily room-and-board fee, a cost that was also rarely paid. Dropping that fee resulted in $72 million in uncollected debt being wiped off the county’s books. That debt followed inmates after release, showing up on credit checks as being owed to Miami-Dade.

The new legislation drops the remaining inmate fees in place in Miami-Dade, including the $600 required for work release for offenders in their teens and 20s enrolled in Corrections’ Boot Camp program.

Of all the county agencies, Corrections spends the most from Miami-Dade’s countywide property tax. That’s the main revenue source for the county’s general fund, a pool of public dollars that pays for 99% of the jail system’s $483 million budget.

Corrections reported collecting $1 million in fees and costs from inmates in 2023, and the county expects dropping the fees to remove about $650,000 from the Corrections budget next year.

Commissioner René Garcia cited costs in casting the only vote against the resolution ending inmate fees, saying he didn’t like “asking taxpayers to fund this.”

Cara Tuzeo, a Corrections administrator, said most Miami-Dade judges already waive fees for ankle monitors for inmates who can’t afford the costs of home detention. She said Tuesday’s legislation would leave the county’s roughly 4,000 inmates only having to pay for optional amenities, such as movies, snacks and telephone calls beyond the free ones already offered by Miami-Dade.

Depending on when Levine Cava recommends a budget adjustment to the commission to cover the lost revenue, the fees will end on July 1 or Oct. 1, the start of the 2025 budget year.

Commissioner Eileen Higgins, who sponsored the legislation, pointed to the $278 figure that Corrections says it costs to keep someone behind bars each day. Giving up fees worth a fraction of that to shift inmates to court-approved home detention makes sense, she said.

“In the long run, this will end up saving the county money,” she said.

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