Karen Thomas, President of the North East Neighborhood Association, talks about the burden of the fees on the families of inmates charged by the Harrisonburg and Middle River jails.

One of Harrisonburg’s greatest strengths is its reputation as the “Friendly City.” As a city and county we cannot maintain this without being inclusive and fair toward all. Thus we must welcome diversity and oppose any and all injustices.

As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This represents the concern of Faith In Action, a coalition of 26 local congregations from diverse faiths who have banded together to help ensure that justice within our community remains a priority.

This year, Faith In Action’s focus is criminal justice issues, believing that we cannot be a welcoming community without supporting humane and just policies affecting all citizens. And one area of its concern is the $1 a day keep fee that our local jail implements as a form of “rent” charged to inmates, but which is normally paid by family and friends.

In addition to the social and financial challenges a family faces when a loved one is incarcerated, they must first pay this fee before their loved one can access overpriced commissary items and have phone privileges. This may not be a big problem for those who are financially able, but for those who are already struggling it can be an added hardship.

The jail receives some $70,000 annually through its’ $1 a day keep fee, which represents only .007 percent (7/100th of 1 percent) of its $10 million budget. One argument made in defense of this “tax” is that the family member can simply choose not to pay these fees as a way of showing “tough love.”

Yet, isn’t incarceration the court’s punishment for the crime committed?

Besides, not all inmates are guilty of major crimes. Do they all need to be shown the same “tough love” for misdemeanor charges? And what if they are incarcerated merely because they are unable to post bail and are awaiting their trial?

We should ask ourselves how we are truly benefiting by implementing this $1 a day keep fee ($3 a day for those transferred to Middle River Jail). Maintaining this optional fee further adds to the socio-economic divide between the “haves,” those who have families not burdened by the extra costs, and the “have-nots,” those with families unable to afford the $1 a day fee (in addition to the $4 it costs to add money to an inmate’s account).

By state law it is the sheriff who decides whether or not to implement this fee. But shouldn’t the court alone, and not a single elected official, set fees and punishments affecting inmates, and without adding hardships to their families? Legal consequences for wrongdoing should be the responsibility of the one committing the crime, not their family members or friends.

As people of faith and goodwill we need to support policies that unite us and that promote “liberty and justice for all.”

This page was written by Nadia DaMes who lives in Mount Crawford.