Magistrates decided to do away with Hillcrest Collection Agency on Tuesday and take their chances of collecting debt incurred by inmates themselves.
Magistrate Thomas Bouldin made the motion, which also included increasing the booking fee from $20 to $50. Bouldin said he thought most of what is collected of inmate debt comes from while the individual is incarcerated, not from after they leave.
By increasing the booking fee, the jail may be able to collect more when someone comes into the jail than when they leave, said Bouldin. His motion also asks the jail to “step up” and assure the inmates know what they owe when they leave. Bouldin said he is not for changing any of the other fees, or for trying to collect on them, he just doesn’t think a collection agency should hound someone who gets out of jail and wants to start over.
The jail can collect what money the inmate comes into the jail with, as well as a percentage of what others bring to them while they are in jail to help pay their debt.
Members of the fiscal court, with the exception of Magistrate Jo Orange, hired Hillcrest the end of last year to collect on the debt. A state auditor’s suggestion to hire an outside agency prompted the court to hire Hillcreat, who was to take a cut of what they collected. However, soon after choosing to do so, the court was asked by some in the community, to reconsider going after inmates for what they owed when they got out of jail, citing hardship on them and their families, which could land them back behind bars.
Inmates are charged a booking fee, lodging fee, and fees for medical, dental and prescriptions. These fees have been hard to collect after an inmate leaves the jail, but have been successful at initial booking when the inmate enters the jail.
Jailer Bill Jenkins, who has made it clear he does not care one way or the other if the county decides to go after the inmate for the debt through a collection agency, gave a few numbers on how much has been collected over the past five years. According to Jenkins, the jail has collected $147,613 from the inmate fee system over the past 63 months. This breaks down to $29,522 per year, $2,343 per month and approximately $40 per inmate. This is of course, is not even close to what was charged.
Jenkins told the court something needed to be decided soon because Hillcrest had already sent the jail a check for $90.
Magistrate Orange, who voted to begin charging the inmates in 2003, which the state allowed, has spoken out against a collection agency fro the get go. She explained that she chose to put the fees on only because she though the jail was a “black hole” and was costing the taxpayers too much to run. She figured this may be a way to gain additional revenue, which would save the taxpayers. She also thought it would be a deterrent to keep people out of jail if they knew they would have to pay.
“This is not a deterrent and we are not collecting very much,” said Orange.
It has since proven not to be a deterrent as Jenkins reported that in 2012, out of the 1,580 booked through the jail, 72 percent of those were repeat offenders.
Orange noted that if the 1,580 people that were booked into the jail in 2012 were charged the $20 booking fee, and it was collected, that would generate $31,600, which was more than the jail has historically received annually. She felt the medical fees needed to stay however.
Magistrate Russell Poore was a bit more stern, saying he thought the county needed to make sure those who incurred debt paid it one way or the other. He agreed with hardship, but said inmates who had debt and couldn’t pay it could do community service and work it off. He added that the court needed to think about the taxpayers, who have to pay their debts regardless.
Magistrate Jack Crossley made a motion before Bouldin to increase the booking fee from $20 to $40, do away with the lodging fee, but keep the medical, dental and prescription fees in place. His motion, however, did not pass because some of the magistrates wanted the booking fee to be a little higher, and Orange wanted to do away with Hillcrest, which was not initially in Crssley’s motion. After the meeting Crossley said his motion should have included the letting go of Hillcrest. He said he thought if it had, Orange would have voted with him. He said he thought doing away with Hillcrest was a given.
Magistrate Drexel Johnson said he would like to revisit the issue six months from now to see how it is working. The changes will go into effect Feb. 3.