When the gavel came down on his drunk-driving trial last year, business owner John Reynolds found himself facing 90 days in county jail. Rather than tell his employees he'd be heading to the slammer, he enrolled in a program at the Pasadena City jail in which he can choose when he'll do his time.
Now he clocks into a cell at 7 a.m., Monday through Friday, dons a prison-orange jumpsuit, does a few chores, and checks out at 4 p.m. "I go back to the office, check my mail, wave to the employees, and no one knows the difference," says Mr. Reynolds (not his real name). Daily charge: about $60.
The Inmate Worker Program, which allows nonviolent offenders flexible jail times, is among a growing number of programs cities are rolling out in an effort to address prison overcrowding and recover jail costs.
Critics say such programs are just a way of coddling middle- and upper-class criminals. Yet supporters contend that they can be an effective way to deal with nonviolent offenders in cities like Pasadena, where inmates can afford the fees.
"Jail systems all over America are searching for creative ways to deal with their burgeoning inmate problems," says Stephen Ingler, executive director of the American Jail Association.
The United States inmate population has doubled in the last decade to more than 1.6 million, as law-enforcement officials have cracked down on drug use and states have passed stiffer sentencing laws. That population continues to balloon from mandatory-sentencing provisions (so called three-strikes laws). As a result, more jail and prison administrators are willing to experiment with concepts, such as the Pasadena jail program.
"It is a good idea because it allows nonviolent, nonfelons to serve their punishment without completely disrupting their regular family and business life and their ties to the community," says Robert Pugsley, a law professor at Southwestern University in Los Angeles. Some participants elect to serve time consecutively, others at night or weekends. "It also reduces the cost of incarceration to the taxpayer," he says.
Created by a local bond issue in 1990, the Pasadena jail is seen as one of the most successful because of the surrounding community's large, upper-middle-class population, its proximity to the Los Angeles County jail - the country's largest and most overcrowded - and because of state-of-the-art construction.
"In case you haven't been to other jails for comparison," says Reynolds, speaking by telephone through a 50-inch-by-50-inch bulletproof window, "you are standing in the Hilton of jails."
Hilton of jails
The 70-bed facility has been laid out in the basement of a $23 million, Spanish-style police building. Bunks are arranged into six pods enclosed not by bars but by shatterproof glass. Each pod has four to 16 individual cells and a common area for inmates. A central control room controls every mechanical feature of the jail from entry and exit doors to inmate's television sets.
There are strict controls on who may enter the Pasadena program: only those guilty of misdemeanors (sentenced to one year or less), no violence or assault cases, and no one convicted of drug offenses. Participants are also required to help with minor chores from light cleaning to food preparation.
Program participants are housed separately from conventional inmates, and therefore not in contact with them. Any criminal in California - or from other states where judges expressly OK the serving of time out-of-state - may use the program. Several have come from Nevada, Washington, and Arizona.
"We're not knocking other jails or prison systems, we are merely offering an alternative to places that are seen by many as unsavory, unsafe, and uncomfortable," says Sgt. Anthony Brush, who has run the Pasadena Inmate Program since 1993.
For Pasadena, the revenues generated, which help offset the costs of jailing other inmates, are significant: about $150,000 a year. One recent, six-month period generated $200,000.
"Since Prop. 13 reduced the property taxes that local communities can use for basics such as this, we have had to welcome ideas that help pay for themselves," says Cmdr. Mary Schaunder, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena City Jail.
While the idea has many pluses from administrative and cost-cutting angles, it rankles some civil libertarians. "This underlines how out of control our whole policy on incarceration is," says Jenni Gainsborough, spokeswoman for the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Objecting to the fact that most prisoners can't afford such a deal, she says: "It is an option that should be available to everyone, not just those with money and a good job."
But others argue that the jail actually increases the sentence of participants and precludes them from early releases that are increasingly standard practice at most large jails. Due to overcrowding at the L.A. County jail, for instance, sentences served equal one-fourth of sentences handed down.
"If a person stays in Pasadena, he will serve his full term," says Robert Wilson, an attorney who has had about 25 clients serve in the inmates program.
For Reynolds, the personal cost of incarceration will be about $3,500 on top of timed served. "That money is absolutely worth it to me," says Reynolds. "Otherwise I would face the loss of my business and the layoff of employees. Who is that good for?"