California taxpayers spend roughly $43,000 a year per inmate.
State Senator Tom Harman, R-Huntington Beach, who is running for Attorney General, thinks it's time to start charging them room and board, up to $25 a day.
"This bill is simply trying to level the playing field and make more of those convicted criminals pay some fair share," he said.
Many inmates already have prison accounts set up so families can deposit money into them. While 55 percent goes to victim restitution, the rest can be used to buy snacks, batteries and other items at the canteen.
The proposed pay-to-stay law would automatically deduct room-and-board from the accounts. For inmates who can't afford it, the debt would be forgiven if they stay out of prison for two years upon their release.
Harman brought Sheriff Thomas Hodgson of Bristol County, Massachusetts, to testify about a similar program at his local jail, that charges only $5 a day.
His small facility made $700,000 in two years. He says it didn't seem fair to cut schools and social programs while his budget for incarceration kept growing.
"This is also about rehabilitation and accountability. I think at a time when the taxpayers are struggling, making cuts, this is a program that really works," Hodgson said.
But opponents were worried about the financial burden that doesn't necessarily punish the inmate.
"It's very important to understand that it's not prisoners who will pay. It's the family members of the incarcerated who send money into prisoner's trust accounts," Jim Lindburg from The Friends Committee on Legislation said.
In the end, the idea seemed too novel and was voted down.
Even the state of Massachusetts is having trouble taking the program statewide. Lawmakers there can't even get a committee hearing like the proposal did in California.