In what is called “pay-to-stay” or “private jail,” small city jails — at least 26 of them in California’s Los Angeles and Orange counties — open their doors to defendants who can afford it. What started out as an antidote to overcrowding has evolved into a two-tiered justice system that allows people convicted of serious crimes to buy their way into safer and more comfortable jail stays, reports the Los Angeles Times and the Marshall Project. Of more than 3,500 people who served time in pay-to-stay programs from 2011 through 2015, more than 160 had been convicted of serious crimes including assault, robbery, domestic violence, battery, sexual assault, sexual abuse of children and possession of child pornography. They include a hip-hop choreographer who had sex with an underage girl; a former Los Angeles police officer who stalked and threatened his ex-wife; and a college student who stabbed a man during a street scuffle.
They all were convicted of felonies, which can end in a state prison sentence. Judges have the discretion to order some offenders to serve time in county or city jails. Allowing some defendants to avoid the notoriously dangerous county jails has long rankled some in law enforcement, who say it runs counter to the spirit of equal justice. Pay-to-stay jails took in nearly $7 million over five years; the average stay cost $1,756. To attract paying customers, some cities tout their facilities as safer, cleaner and with more modern amenities. The Santa Ana jail’s website notes that jail is a “highly disruptive experience” and promotes its jail as a place where criminals can serve their time in a “less intimidating environment.” “The whole criminal justice system is becoming more and more about: How much money do you have? Can you afford better attorneys? Can you afford to pay for a nicer place to stay?” said John Eum, a Los Angeles police detective.