Rita Oliver stood before fiscal court Tuesday, pleading for the court to reconsider going after inmates when they are released to collect on a debt incurred while incarcerated.
Oliver acts as a liaison for the ACTS program (Another Chance to Succeed) in Logan County. The program helps released inmates get back on their feet and give them a second chance on life.
“I’m just coming here because I’ve personally worked with these people and it’s difficult for them to get another start. I’m not pleading for them, it’s their circumstances,” said Oliver, adding, “A lot of these people will leave the jail with just the clothes on their backs. It’s almost like they are already defeated when they get out. If you work with people, they are less likely to come back.”
The court has been debating the idea of going after inmates for the costs they incur while incarcerated such as a $20 booking fee, a $20 per day lodging fee, a $10 per visit doctor fee, a $10 fee to see the nurse (state inmates) and $5 (county inmates) and a prescription copay of $10 or actual cost of prescription if less than $10.
The jail has been charging for these fees for years, however, when an inmate left the jail the debt was left as well and the county never attempted to recover it. Most of what has been gained has come from while the inmate is incarcerated. Whatever money they come in with or receive from the outside while they are there, is split with the jail to cover costs. It is just recently, after a state audit recommending the county hire an outside collection agency to go after the inmate, that is has become an issue.
The court agreed to hire Hillcrest Credit Agency the end of last year to collect past and future debt owed by inmates. The decision drew some criticism from those who thought it was placing a hardship on the inmate and their families. One of those in opposition to the decision was Magistrate Jo Orange, who ironically made the motion to place the charges on inmates years ago in 2003, because she thought it would be a deterrent for repeat offenders.
Even the jailer Bill Jenkins sees it as a “nightmare” for the jail in trying to collect these fees after they get out.
Judge Executive Logan Chick told fiscal court Tuesday that he had been thinking about the issue.
“I got up this morning and was thinking about it quite a bit. Of course when people leave jail and have a big bill, they are likely to go out and do something illegal and end up back in. I think people ought to be punished, but I’m kind of wondering if we need to limit what we try to collect,” Chick said, wondering if it would save the taxpayers more in the end by the inmate staying out of jail.
An idea the judge threw out was charging a flat fee when someone comes into the jail. He gave an example of $100. He said if you charged everyone $100 and had a thousand people come through the jail in a year, that would be $100,000, which would be more than is collected now.
“People can afford to pay $100,” said Chick. The judge did, however, say he didn’t think the county should adjust the fees for medical charges.
Jenkins has said the fees associated with medical procedures have been a big deterrent to requests to see the medical department, as only inmates that are actually ill make medical requests.
“Without the medical fee system, it would be a constant parade of inmates, on a daily basis, seeing our nurse and doctor. We offer excellent medical care and we offer medical calls every day of the week even though we are not required to do so,” said Jenkins.
According to figures compiled by Jenkins, the jail collected $147,613 from inmates over the past five years. Broken down that constitutes to $2,343 a month, which averages $40 per inmate. It is speculated that this was collected by inmates while incarcerated and not after they got out.
“This is not a lot of money,” said Magistrate Orange, who wants to do away with the collection agency and do away with going after inmates once they get out.
The county signed a contract with Hillcrest, one in which county attorney Joe Ross was initially concerned about because the company gets a percentage of what is collected and it may not go over well if the county decides to cease going after past debt. However, after looking at the contract, Ross said it states the county can get out of the contract whenever they chose.
Magistrate Thomas Bouldin, who voted for the collection agency because it wouldn’t cost the county anything to do it and any funds recovered would be better than none, has changed his mind.
“I’ve changed my opinion, because it’s proven not to be a deterrent. At the end of the day we are doing the right thing by talking and studying this. If you honestly look at it, the fees are not a deterrent. The county in 64 months brought in $147,613, it came from the period of time when they were incarcerated, not after they were let go. I think it would be wise for the court to go back and look at the fees and come up with a structure. There is no sense in chasing someone once they are out,” said Bouldin, who also believes medical fees should be left the way they are.
Magistrate Russell Poore says he is not against giving anyone a second chance, but says some don’t want a second chance and he doesn’t want to see the taxpayers be taken advantage of.
“One told me once that he kind of enjoyed it in jail because he got cable TV, three meals a day and could read. We have made our jail a hotel,” said Poore, adding that he can remember years ago inmates were fed turnip greens and corn bread. Poore would like to see some sort of set up where the people who get out that try get a break, but those that do not, will not. “It’s cheap rent,” said Poore.
Bouldin said the people who get out that don’t care will not pay it anyway, however, the ones that do care it’s going to be hard when a collection agency is breathing down their necks.
Bouldin suggested forming a committee to look into how much money is owned to the county by inmates and if in fact the $147,613 was collected while inmates were incarcerated. He also thought a fee structure should be looked at as well. Magistrate Orange, who was ready to make the decision Tuesday, asked Bouldin for specifics on what he wanted to see before he could change his mind.
Magistrate Poore said he would like to see how many inmates are involved with the ACTS program once they get out.
“I think we ought to look into charging some fees, but I don’t believe we ought to be out hounding somebody when they’re out trying to do right,” said Magistrate Drexel Johnson.
Former Magistrate Dickie Carter, who also voted to put the fees in place when he served on the court, attended Tuesday’s meeting and addressed the issue.
I seconded the motion to put this in place years ago because I thought it would be a deterrent,” said Carter, who told a story of a women who went to AGAPE to buy her children some toys for Christmas and was trying to start over but was worried about a $1,400 bill she received from the jail. “She said she didn’t know how she was going to do it,” said Carter, adding that most people down at the Logan jail were incarcerated for drugs and alcohol.
“For some, this is going to be devastating. And to know I was a part of this getting started,” said Carter. “It’s just going to hurt those who are trying to get better. I look at it at a different way then most because I’ve been doing jail ministry since 1982.”
Magistrate Poore questioned Carter on why he passed it in the first place and why was he just now coming out against it.
“All those years you had to make it better and now we are bringing it up, why now when we are talking about it,” said Poore.
Carter told Poore he and Magistrate Orange were serving on a committee to look into trying to save the jail money because it was costing to much. He said he and Orange visited many jails.
“This was supposed to be a deterrent to people coming back to jail if they knew they would owe money. It’s not working,” said Carter.
Magistrate Orange chimed in in Carter’s defense saying, “He made a motion years ago to take it off,” said Orange.
Magistrate Bouldin said he needed more information before he could make a decision and he could not do that with just 30 minutes of discussion, which actually was more like an hour. Judge Chick agreed.
The issue was tabled until the next fiscal court meeting, where Jenkins is to bring back more information and numbers on the issue.