A Rose By Any Other Name
J.A.I.L. News Journal
Los Angeles - February 9, 2001
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A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME
Court upholds seizure of inmates' funds
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
OLYMPIA -- The state prison system can seize a portion of money sent to prison inmates by spouses in what amounts to a "user fee" that helps recoup the cost of incarceration, the Washington Supreme Court said Thursday.
The high court voted 6-3 to reject a class-action lawsuit brought by inmates' spouses.
The decision overturned a King County judge's finding that the program was unconstitutional. It also prompted a dissenting opinion by the chief justice that questioned the merits of taking money sent by spouses who, in many cases, earn little money and may even receive public assistance.
The spouses sought to overturn a 1995 law that allowed the Department of Corrections to seize 35 percent of all money received by inmates.
Twenty percent of the money is used to offset part of the cost of incarceration, which averages $23,500 a year per inmate, according to the department. Of the rest, 10 percent goes into an inmate savings account that the prisoners get when they're released, and 5 percent is placed in the state crime victim's compensation fund.
The spouses were supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Northwest Women's Law Center and a group called Pro-Family Advocates of Washington.
Together, the spouses and their backers argued that the program violated the constitutional requirement of equal taxation and protection from unlawful "takings" by the government. They also said they were entitled to the interest earned on the inmate savings accounts.
King County Superior Court Judge Glenna Hall sided with the spouses and ordered the Corrections Department to stop making deductions received from married inmates, but allowed seizures of funds directed to unmarried inmates, according to court records. Hall also ordered the return of all previously seized funds.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Barbara Madsen, overturned Hall's order.
Madsen said the seizures do not violate the state or federal constitutions because the deduction is not a tax.
Taxes benefit the general public, Madsen wrote, while the deduction primarily benefits "a small group of individuals" -- inmates and crime victims. The deduction is best described as "a recoupment provision" or a "user fee" for specific services rendered by the state to inmates, she added.
"In essence, an inmate is being asked to reimburse the state because the inmate has made it necessary for the state to keep and maintain him at a large cost," Madsen wrote.
The court majority did, however, give spouses a consolation prize. It ordered the prison agency to pay current and former inmates any interest earned by their savings accounts.
In a dissent, Chief Justice Gerry Alexander called the deduction a "blatant confiscation" that amounts to a tax. To emphasize his point, Alexander quoted Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
"Just as 'a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,' a tax has distinctive features that cannot be obscured merely by giving it another name," he wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Charles Johnson and Richard Sanders.
The state is the primary beneficiary of the prison system, which means the cost of incarcerating inmates is the responsibility of all taxpayers, not inmates and their spouses, Alexander said.
He questioned what would happen if the state applied a similar program to the public school system.
"If the state were to legislate a seizure of a portion of every allowance that a school child receives from his parents in order to recoup the cost of educating that child, I submit that we would have little difficulty in concluding that this was a tax on the students and parents masquerading as a recoupment provision," Alexander said.
Court records did not say how much money is seized by the prison system. Corrections spokesman Veltry Johnson did not immediately return a call Thursday.
The inmates themselves also have challenged the deductions. Their case was rejected by a federal judge, according to court records.
The Olympian Copyright 2000
South Sound Friday, February 9, 2001
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