Should prisoners have to pay their way?

Here’s an idea that takes the cake with a file in it: Some New Jersey lawmakers want to bill convicted criminals for prison time and electronic monitoring.

It’s an idea you’ve no doubt heard before. And it never goes anywhere.

Know why? Makes no sense.

Say you’ve just spent five years in the Big House. The average cost for incarcerating state prisoners in New Jersey is about $39,000 a year.

I don’t know about you, but adding that kind of coin to my annual nut means I’m moonlighting as a manager at Starbucks.

Chances are most released prisoners come from poor backgrounds — so none of ’em is expecting a sugarmama waiting, arms open wide, outside the clink. They’ll be lucky to scrape up cab or bus fare to get back to whatever run-down nabe they came from.

And once they finally get to lie down on a warm bed, there’s a $200,000 debt already there. It’s like tuition.I don’t know of any high-paying jobs offering ex-cons that kind of scratch — apart from selling drugs or high-powered weapons. Do you?

The first thing people who’ve just finished paying their debt TO SOCIETY need is education, training and just the right break. And that’s just to get by.

If they’re going to drag this obligation out of the pen with them, why not send ’em straight to a chain gang? There’s an $8.7 billion rail tunnel being built through the Palisades and under the Hudson to Manhattan. The ex-cons would have to pay for those striped uniforms, though.

And what about those who are ordered to pay restitution to their victims? Which creditors comes first?

Most would be forced to hire a taxpayer-funded public defender to appear before a taxpayer-funded judge while a taxpayer-funded stenographer takes notes — just so the ex-con can be declared indigent and unable to pay anyone, much less the state.

I love when an elected representative with a cushy job tries to squeeze blood from a stone.

But state Sen. James Beach (D – Camden) apparently has the stones.

Beach, please.

Where’s the incentive for someone to get his or her life together? And what do you do with them if they don’t pay — send ’em back to the pokey? Garnish their welfare checks? (Which, of course, would amount to a double tax for the rest of us.)

I know: We’ll give ’em all credit cards. Then they can max them out in payments to the state. Then the feds can bail out the banks.

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to make community service a condition of parole?” a veteran of the criminal justice system told me this afternoon. “You pay it forward instead of paying it back.”

Even better, shouldn’t money be diverted to programs aimed at (a) high-risk offenders who need to be derailed early; and/or (b) low-risk offenders who never learned how to make it in this world? Throw some expert manpower at them and — just maybe — fewer people will be less inclined to cross the line.

In the end, if the entire Legislature has a complete lapse in judgment (it’s been known to happen), state government will have to create a new tier of public jobs — debt collectors. Or it could … ahem… contract out the work.

Maybe that’s the end game. Maybe it’s all about making the public safety industry bigger by creating more taxpayer-funded jobs — in a state where property taxes are already way out of control.

More jobs equals more public workers indebted to you. More public workers indebted to you,  more votes.

More votes… well….  You get it.

As an unknown blogger suggested today, we could raise money in New Jersey by making legislators in Trenton pay the cost of enacting frivolous and unenforceable laws.

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