Family visits may be good for inmates.

Only now, it’s going to come with a price tag.

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 — said it’s also illegal.

A lawsuit filed by Middle Ground in Maricopa County Superior Court claims that lawmakers acted unconstitutionally in authorizing the Department of Corrections to charge the fee. Attorneys for the state disagree and want the case thrown out.

It will be up to Judge Karen Potts to decide.

At the heart of the fight is that budget provision permitting a fee but leaving it up to Charles Ryan, director of the Department of Corrections, to decide how much to charge.

Ryan told Capitol Media Services he picked $25, saying that is close to reflecting 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 that 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.

“I might not like it,” he said. “But it would be legal.”

Kavanagh said if a court rules against the state he will re-craft 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, a former prison inmate who served time for shooting a student in the back of the head during a Tucson drug rip-off more than 35 years ago before being paroled, said even if the legal objections are overcome, the fee remains a bad idea. He said it will only discourage family visits — visits he believes can help inmates not only do the time but also be rehabilitated.

“Let’s say you’ve got a mother and a father and five siblings,’’ Hamm said.

“With this, what’s going to happen is one person’s going to go visit and all the other six members of the family are not going to visit because they don’t want to pay $150 for the privilege of going to visit their brother in prison,’’ he said. Hamm said that 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.

Ryan said the one-time fee also needs to be put into perspective.

He pointed out that visitors are each allowed to bring between $30 and $40 into the prison to buy items from vending machines for inmates each time they come, depending on the inmate’s custody level.

“So if a family of four visited Saturday and Sunday and they were allowed to bring the maximum of $40 a person, that could be $320 they could be spending” each week, he said. And if they visited every weekend, Ryan said, that computes out on paper to more than $16,000 a year.

By contrast, the one-time fee for that family of four would be just $100. And Ryan said that children younger than 18 are exempt.

Hamm said this fee isn’t the only way state lawmakers are making life financially difficult on inmates and their families. He noted that David Arner, serving time for child molestation, has filed his own lawsuit objecting to a 1 percent fee charged on deposits made to accounts that inmates can use to buy items, with those funds also set aside for building maintenance.

“Most of the money put on an inmate’s account comes from the same people who visit him,” Hamm said. “So they’re being taxed to apply to visit and then, once they give the money to the inmate, the inmate’s being charged 1 percent of that money that is also being used as a tax.”

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