PHOENIX - Family visits may be good for inmates.
Only now, it's going to come with a price tag - a one-time $25-per-visitor fee.
A state law that took effect July 1 allows the Department of Corrections to charge a one-time fee on any family member who wants to come see a relative behind bars. The fee is expected to generate about $750,000 this year.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who inserted the provision into this year's budget, said the fee is justified. He said there is a cost behind doing the necessary background checks.
But James Hamm of the prisoner rights group Middle Ground Prison Reform said anything that discourages family members from visiting is not only a bad idea, it's also illegal.
A lawsuit filed by Middle Ground in Maricopa County Superior Court claims lawmakers acted unconstitutionally in authorizing the Department of Corrections to charge the fee. Attorneys for the state disagree and want Judge Karen Potts to throw the case out.
Central issues in the fight include how the money is being used and that they left it up to Charles Ryan, director of the Department of Corrections, to decide how much to charge.
Ryan said he picked $25 because it reflects the low end of what the Department of Public Safety charges private individuals for background checks legally required for employment purposes.
But Hamm pointed out that's not where the money is going.
"It's not being used to defray the cost of a background check," he said. "It's being used for building renewal and maintenance for all the buildings in the Department of Corrections."
That, said Hamm, makes the fee unconstitutional.
Kavanagh said that's a meaningless distinction. He said the money being collected had to go somewhere, and he figured the building renewal fund was the best place to put it.
And he said that $25 fee seems reasonable, given what the DPS charges.
Ryan said, though, that his agency does its own background checks. And he said he has no figures of exactly how much the process actually costs.
Hamm acknowledged the state has had problems balancing its budget. He also said the state is entitled to charge what would be "user fees" to the people who are getting the benefit of the work that is done.
But Hamm said only if the fee were specifically for - and financially related to - the background check would it be constitutional.
Kavanagh said that if a court rules against the state, he will rewrite the legislation to instead put the money into a general fund to operate the Department of Corrections, a fund that also finances the cost of employees who do the background checks.
Hamm said even if the legal objections are overcome, the fee remains a bad idea. He said it will only discourage family visits, which he believes can help inmates not only do the time but want to be rehabilitated.
For prisoners with parents and several siblings the cost could price them out of being able to visit, which, he said, will lead to "greater frustration and anger among the inmates."
Kavanagh scoffed at that assumption.
"If a one-time charge of $25 is enough to dissuade you from visiting your loved one, then I'm wondering how much of a loved one he or she is," he said.
And Ryan noted children younger than 18 are exempt.
"If a one-time charge of $25 is enough to dissuade you from visiting your loved one, then I'm wondering how much of a loved one he or she is."
Rep. John Kavanagh