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Paying for Detention

February 16, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Pat LaMarche, Politics

Interview with Sheriff Arpaio Casts Light on Kids, Poverty, and More

by Pat LaMarche

{Editor’s Note: NCV Contributor Pat LaMarche is on a journey to explore homelessness and poverty in the U.S. NCV will post updates from her travels…}

I met with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio this week. (You can read the full transcript of our conversation on my Facebook page.) I was excited to meet with him for many reasons. I was hoping against hope that he could clear up something about the role the criminal justice system plays in the lives of the poor. But all that aside, I thought he might answer some questions that were planted in my brain earlier on our Babes of Wrath EPIC Journey: why in the world kids in Arizona get charged a per diem for their incarceration.

Short answer? He didn’t know. No, it’s not that he didn’t know why, he just didn’t know they were charged at all. The kids are charged in Coconino County, Arizona — but it appears not in Maricopa County. It must be subjective. After all, Sheriff Arpaio decides what the kids in his jails have, including a chain gang. When we spoke, the Sheriff was boasting about his equal opportunity chain gangs. He brought up that he had male and female chain gangs because he didn’t want to be sexist. That’s when I brought up his child chain gangs. He was a little dismayed that I even knew about them, seeing as nobody has ever really protested his putting children to hard labor. When I asked if he still had them he said, “Well yeah. I thought I’d take a lot of heat, [but] nobody seemed to care.”

Don’t worry Sheriff, nobody seems to care about kids paying for their detention either.

More about him later. In the meantime back to Coconino: I loved the juvenile detention folks up there. They really gave a hoot about the kids and it showed. Even the kids were candid and open about how much better their lives were in jail than they were at home. They liked a place where they could be clean. And without all the temptation to use again, especially because it just landed them back in trouble.

The kid inmates were also candid and open about being thousands of dollars in debt. They weren’t complaining; they thought it was normal. As a mom of kids getting crushed by student loan debt, I was horrified to think of these kids — saddled with jail costs before they even tried to make it as adults. One 17 year old, “Wendell,” is more than $10,000 in debt, “not counting my restitution,” he adds.

Wendell is pretty sure he’s charged $16 per night, based on his family’s ability to pay. The incarceration fees are meted out on a sliding scale. $5 is the least a kid will pay, $65 is the most. $10,000 is a lot of money, but Wendell started racking up bills when he was nine years old. “I was charged with possession, intent to distribute narcotics, destruction of property and assaulting a police officer.” Wendell said that when the cop started arresting him, “I was scared and I just started punching him.”

$10,000? If you’re doing the math at home, he’s been in jail off and on for nearly 2 of his last 8 years.

In Pennsylvania — one of more than a dozen states that charges locked up adults for their incarceration — people were released from jail with absolutely no way to pay their fees, and the authorities knew it. Just as sure as a grown police man — and the rest of the criminal justice system — knows that a nine year old isn’t ‘assaulting an officer’ and didn’t get into drug trafficking any other way but through the ‘family’ or ‘neighborhood’ business. Locking up the nine year old doesn’t cure the problem anymore than amputating a foot cures diabetes.

Incarcerated adults indebted for their time “inside” just end up on the street or in shelters like the one where I worked. It was difficult for folks released from jail to find jobs that paid their everyday bills, let alone these additional fiscal punishments. This burden was onerous and counterproductive and harkened back to Dickensian debtors’ prisons. But when it comes to kids, it isn’t just ludicrous; it’s a well-kept secret. I searched the internet to find other areas where juvenile jail debt is incurred, but I couldn’t find any list at all. I wrote to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. They wrote back that — to the best of their combined knowledge — a list of jurisdictions that charge incarcerated children simply doesn’t exist.

Nor does a list of kid chain gangs exist, so maybe Sheriff Joe isn’t the only sheriff to use them.

There was one other topic that I was possibly as curious about as the next slack-jawed spectator who reads about “America’s Toughest Sheriff” and his antics. But because of my preoccupation with poverty, I didn’t get a chance to ask him about going after immigrants. No, he just brought it up: “Another thing I get a lot of heat on [is] illegal immigration, especially going into businesses that hire illegal aliens but the majority we arrest have fake ID. That’s a no no. That’s very difficult. On the other hand when we do — I don’t want to be harsh — when we do arrest those people that are here illegally with fake ID we build up vacancies for those that are here legally.” His website boasts more than 40,000 such arrests. He told me because of lax laws he’s only arrested three business owners, though, for hiring them.

The sheriff really feels he’s singled out as a monster just because he takes migrant parents away from their kids. He insists that people who feel his actions are racially motivated malign him unfairly. After all, as he put it: “But I get, I break up families. That’s the old saying. But you know, what I tell the Hispanic? ‘I break up families. What about everybody else? All those people in jail. Do you think they don’t have families too?’ It has nothing to do with being here illegally. All the drugs and everything, they they’re away from their kids. Why do they just say, why do they say, ‘You’re breaking up Hispanic families?’ A lot of, everybody’s broken up that goes to jail. It’s the big picture.”

Let me leave Sheriff Joe there, mostly because anything I could say, I’m hoping that you’re already thinking…

Pat LaMarche has extensive experience working with the nation’s poor, most recently as Vice President of Community Affairs at Safe Harbour, Inc. As a former journalist and award-winning broadcaster, LaMarche spent more than two decades studying and reporting on poverty issues both in the U.S. and abroad. During her 2004 Green Party Campaign for U.S. Vice President, she took to the streets to uncover the lives of the homeless in what she called the “Left Out Tour,” resulting in the book Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States (2006). Among other venues for her work, LaMarche is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

EPIC Journey

First installment: Babes of Wrath

Second installment: Who’s Responsible?

Third installment: Up from the Depths

Fourth installment: Paying for Detention

1 Comments to “Paying for Detention”


  1. Very informative interview. I’ve recently read that according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice data, one in nine black males between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated. One in nine is even more than 10%, the situation is already out of control.

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