Even in jail, there are the haves and the have-nots.
Consider California, where ability and willingness to pay $100 a night can get a defendant a cell that is – if not Disney resort quality – better than the unsafe, gritty quarters that scream “punishment.”
The amenities -- yes, that word can actually be used in the same sentence as “jail cell” -- in some places include flat-screen TVs, a computer room, yoga sessions and new beds, according to a story jointly reported by the Marshall Project and the Los Angeles Times.
One defendant opting for a less prison-feeling prison was Alan Wurtzel, described in the story as having been sentenced to a year in jail for sexual battery.
Wurtzel paid $100 a night to avoid the unpleasant experience of being around other convicts like himself, and ended up in Seal Beach’s city jail, where he availed himself of flat screen TVs, a new bed among other amenities. He also served six months, all of which did not sit well with his victim, who spoke to the Times and the Marshall Project and expressed disgust that not only did Wurtzel not serve his whole year, which didn’t seem like enough to her to begin with, but that he got to choose less unpleasant accommodations than the Los Angeles County Jail.
“I feel like, ‘Why did I go through this?’” she said to reporters covering the story.
The perhaps-dubious practice began as a way to deal with overcrowding in jail. Then it broadened to give those who could pay a chance to stay in safer and less gritty surroundings.
The two news outlets found that of more than 3,500 people who chose the so-called pay-to-stay option for their jail sentence between 2011 and 2015, more than 160 had been convicted of assault, robbery, domestic violence, battery, sexual assault, sexual abuse of children and possession of child pornography, among other serious crimes.
Most people who serve time in pay-to-stay jails are there for offenses such as driving under the influence, the story said.
It’s up to judges to determine whether a person convicted of a felony serves time in a county or city jail.
Of course, the two-tiered system has plenty of critics beyond victims who take no comfort in seeing their victimizer pay for their crimes in relative comfort.
Many law enforcement officials see the pay-to-stay option as going against the basic concept of punishment, or retributive justice, for a person who has committed a crime.
The American Civil Liberties Union has slammed the slammer upgrade as “jail for the rich,” saying it’s just plain un-American to treat the better-off better.
Wurtzel’s attorney said that his client just isn’t the prison type, and that would have been obvious to the hardcore felons who might have seen him as a target for bullying.
“There’s a pecking order among inmates…he’s not somebody who would do well,” the defense attorney, Robert Schwartz, was quoted as saying in the story that appeared in the Times. “It’s still jail. There’s still the loss of freedom.”
Leonol Pelayo, who stayed in a pay-to-stay jail after pleading no contest to statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl who attended his South L.A. church in 2011, said there was no way he was going to stay in a tough place like a real jail.
“County jail, you’re verbally abused, physically abused by everybody,” said Pelayo, who was a church leader, according to the Times story. “I didn’t want to spend one day there.”
Some county officials say in the Times story that there are benefits to the system that go beyond the person serving time.
“Each case is decided on its own merits,” Jane Robison, Los Angeles County district attorney spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County district attorney, was quoted as saying that a pay-to-stay sentence for a serious crime is “not something we take lightly.”
“We didn’t create the system,” Schroeder said. “So we have to work within it and figure out what is in the best interest of a case. You could even say that if it helps the taxpayer save money, that’s always a good thing."