She Only Served 10 Months Behind Bars. Florida Still Slapped Her With A $127,000 Bill.

Under Florida's "pay-to-stay" law, inmates are charged $50 for every day of their sentence—including time they never spent incarcerated.


Imagine you've just been released from prison in Florida. You have every intention of turning your life around. You plan to stay out of trouble, get a job, and follow the rules of your parole. Then, you find out you owe a six-figure bill.

In Florida—and most other states—inmates are charged for the costs of their time in prison. The practice, called "pay-to-stay," leaves many former offenders with staggering debt. 

In Florida, prisoners are charged $50 for every day of their original sentence—meaning they keep getting charged, even if they are released early. When former inmates inevitably fail to pay this massive bill, it can prevent them from ever moving on from their period spent behind bars.

"Where I'm at today, I'm truly being stopped by one single barrier and it is a dollar sign," Shelby Hoffman told WFTS Tampa Bay, a local news station. Hoffman was hit with a $127,000 bill for a 7-year prison sentence—even though she only served 10 months. Since her release from prison, Hoffman has gotten clean and rebuilt her life. She's soon to graduate with a bachelor's degree. However, she can't start her dream career as a case manager because of her outstanding pay-to-stay bill.

"I've been out of prison 7.5 years at this point," Hoffman added. "When I have trekked so hard to get a track record that I have now, and you are imposing something that I can't pay off in a lifetime, so I am stuck . . . I have a family now, I have a daughter, a wonderful husband, I have a home, I have all these accomplishments I've worked so hard, so hard to maintain."

Pay-to-stay fines end up following people like Hoffman long after they've left prison, trapping them in insurmountable debt. Not only is this practice cruel, but it obviously has little utility beyond the extended punishment of ex-offenders.

"Asking those caught up in our criminal legal system to support government agencies is an inefficient way for the government to raise revenue," Lauren-Brooke Eisen wrote last year in Human Rights, the American Bar Association's magazine. "Because many low-income people can't pay their debt, billions of dollars in fines and fees go unpaid every year.

"We think it's unconstitutional," Lisa Foster, Co-Executive Director of the Fines & Fees Justice Center, told WFTS Tampa Bay. "It's not proportionate either to the underlying offense or to a person's financial circumstances."

Even so, pay-to-stay laws stay undisturbed in most states, leaving former offenders like Hoffman trapped, no matter how much they do to rebuild their lives.

"I had a mindset, because my dad was a federal prison guard, that you do the crime, you know, you do the time," Hoffman's grandmother told WFTS Tampa Bay. "But when I actually lived through this, I thought this is not the way it is, there is no compassion shown to anybody who makes a mistake and pays the price for it. And she did."