While trying to avoid paying attention to the Paris Hilton jail incident, I heard a short news story on pay jail. The idea is as follows.
For a fee of between $75 and $127 per day certain convicts can upgrade the nature of their incarceration. The perks for this upgrade include being allowed to have an MP3 player or computer in the cell and being allowed to leave jail during the day when on a work furlough.
Another major advantage is that the people who pay for jail are kept at a distance from violent offenders and are effectively isolated from some of the more unpleasant aspects of prison (such as gang violence).
In response to an obvious concern, the defenders of such jails point out that they are only for non-violent offenders. The practice itself is justified by the fact that it generates revenue. These jails tend to be run by private companies, but perhaps some of the income goes to the relevant government agency.
On one hand, such jails seem to have the virtue of being honest about how the legal system actually works. Those with money and power are convicted less often and when convicted received punishments that are far less harsh. Pay jail simply illustrates the ancient truism- life is a crap sandwich: the more bread you have, the less crap you have to eat.
On the other hand, pay jails seem to grossly violate a more elevated concept of justice. From a moral standpoint, the wealth of a wrongdoer does not seem to be a relevant factor in assessing the wrongness of their actions and hence the extent to which they should be punished. Intuitively, it would be odd to have to check the bank accounts of two wrongdoers in order to see which had committed the worse crime. Pay jails permit those with more wealth to be punished less not because they deserve less punishment but because they can afford to buy less punishment. This hardly seems like true justice.
It can be argued that assessing the justice of a punishment involves taking into account other factors beyond the deed itself, such as the character of the person committing the deed, her motivation, and the circumstances. Wealth, it could be argued, is a relevant factor. After all, as noted above, wealth already plays a factor in life in general and the legal system in particular. Why then should we not get this fact right out in the open and put justice where it should be-up for sale?