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Judge: Arizona prison visitor fee constitutional

A one-time prison visitor fee that goes toward maintaining state-run lockups does not amount to a tax and is constitutional, a Maricopa County judge ruled in a lawsuit challenging the fee.

The Tempe-based group Middle Ground Prison Reform sued the state Department of Corrections earlier this year, arguing that the $25 fee actually was a tax that targeted a vulnerable segment of residents and asked that any money paid so far be returned. The group could not find a law similar to Arizona’s in other states.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Karen Potts sided with corrections officials in a ruling Monday, saying a tax is different in that it is based on property or income. The fee is voluntary and in exchange for government services that allow people to visit family or loved ones incarcerated in Arizona state prisons, she wrote.

“So long as the service is not asked, the money will never be demanded,” Potts wrote.

Corrections spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said Tuesday that the department is pleased with the ruling. Corrections officials previously denied that the nonrefundable fee was unconstitutional and said it would ensure the safety of inmates. More than $95,000 in fees had been collected as of Nov. 30, Lamoreaux said.

Plaintiff Donna Hamm said the ruling is a slap in the face to prison visitors who are saddled with a responsibility that should be borne by all taxpayers. While the fee is billed as a background check fee required at each of the 15 Arizona prisons, it goes toward repairs and maintenance at the 10 run by the state.

“Essentially what the court is saying is, ‘You visitors, because you wear and tear on the visitation buildings, you have to pay for the repair and maintenance of all 1,552 buildings,’” she said. “It’s just an absurd interpretation of the existing case law.”

People who were approved for visitation prior to the enactment of the fee in July were grandfathered in. Children under 18, inmates’ foster parents and those who want only phone privileges are exempt from payment.

Hamm vowed to appeal. Her group also is challenging a set-aside of money deposited into inmates’ accounts.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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