THE BLOG

Jail: Three Hots and a Cot

03/26/2014 01:24 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2014

A few weeks ago, "X," a client who has lived on the streets for years and is a regular visitor at Bethesda Cares' Drop-In Center, did something abhorrent outside our offices. I'll spare you the details, but it was pretty gross. Sue, our executive director, asked him to rectify the situation. He not only refused to do so, but was rude and abusive to her in return.

As I discussed in my last post, no one, no matter what his or her issues, gets a behavioral free-pass at facilities for people experiencing homelessness. It would serve neither them nor us. So I wasn't surprised when, at the end of their conversation, Sue told X not to visit our Drop-In Center for the coming month. X stalked off and that was that.

The following Monday, I asked whether anyone had seen X around. "He's in jail," our office manager said.

I was dumbfounded. "What? Why? What did he do?"

She shrugged. "Picked a fight with a police officer, disorderly conduct, something like that. Got himself put away for....a month."

How long will I have to have worked at Bethesda Cares before my jaw stops hitting the ground? Clearly, unhappy with his banishment from our offices, X found another place in which to pass his time.

Putting aside the emotional impact incarceration could have on X, I started to wonder about what his little jaunt in the pokey is costing taxpayers. I researched some figures, and while some are just estimates, I think you'll see my point anyhow. Back-of-the-napkin, what's the price tag?

1. Police and court time, processing him. Two hours? Three? Happy to say I've never been arrested, so that's a guess. On-line price-per-arrest estimates I found range from $436 for a bar fighter in Mississippi (not including court costs) to $1,000-$2,000 for a basic, custodial misdemeanor arrest and court arraignment in New York City. Let's be conservative, and go with $1,000 for placing X behind bars.

2. Public defender: According to PublicdefenderSalary.com starting salary in my area is $59-88/hour. Putting X's counsel at, say, $65/hour, I'm figuring if he got 20 minutes of that person's time, X was fortunate; $21.45.

3. Month behind bars: local jail costs aren't available, but a Maryland prison is estimated at $38,386/year per inmate, which comes out to $105/night. Multiply that by 30, and a month of incarcerating X costs $3150.

I'm not including transport costs, because I don't know the logistics of the arrest and I'm sure there are incidentals of which I'm not aware. If emergency medical services had been called in, for instance, add in $300-$800, depending on services rendered.

Now, I understand that these costs are shared among a variety of agencies, but who cares? It's all coming out of our pockets and I'm putting the cost of X's month of incarceration at $4171.45.

I'm not including transport costs, because I don't know the logistics of the arrest and I'm sure there are incidentals of which I'm not aware. If emergency medical services had been called in, for instance, add in $300-$800, depending on services rendered.

Now, I understand that these costs are shared among a variety of agencies, but who cares? It's all coming out of our pockets and I'm putting the cost of X's month of incarceration at $4996.45.

Hmmm, to what better use might we put that money?

X has no home. Looking at subsidized county housing, I just saw an efficiency listed in Takoma Park, Maryland, for $895/month, and one-bedroom in Rockville, MD, for 1030/month, with a pool. Let's toss in $100/month for utilities. No need to add in money for food or clothing, X works the social service network for those.

Would X have been arrested, if he had been housed? Possibly, but in connecting the dots on this one, I think not. Regardless, his story is emblematic of thousands of similar arrests nationwide, where people living on our streets are arrested under vagrancy laws, for panhandling or sleeping in public, to name just a few ordinances criminalizing what we really could label "Existing While Homeless."

Fiscally speaking, putting our money towards jail, not housing, don't make no cents.