LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) -- When chronic panhandler William Hensley is released after one of his frequent stints in jail, his debt to society is briefly paid.

But Hensley's other debt -- to Louisville Metro Corrections -- continues to balloon.

After being arrested more than 100 times over the years, Hensley owes about $3,000 in “booking fees,” which is a $35 charge Metro Corrections tries to collect from every inmate who enters the jail.

Usually unable to pay, Hensley has amassed one of the largest outstanding balances of any inmate, but it is a drop in the bucket compared with the more-than $3 million owed by inmates since Metro Corrections began collecting the booking fees in 2003.

Now, for the first time, Metro Corrections is considering a more aggressive approach to getting that money back. The jail has sought bids for a private debt collection agency to go after the booking fees owed to the jail and keep a percentage of the money collected

Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton said the jail collects no more than 20 percent of the booking fees it charges,
prompting him to look at how other jails across the state and country have tried to recover outstanding debts.

“We are looking at various avenues to improve that collection rate,” Bolton said. Metro Corrections has collected more than $3.7 million in fees, and the money goes into the jail's general fund.

Bolton said Metro Corrections is reviewing two bids submitted by collection agencies and expects to make a decision by Wednesday.

But there is no guarantee the jail will hire one of the firms, Bolton said. In interviews, Bolton acknowledged that many people who owe the jail, like Hensley, are already among the most marginalized in society.

He said he is less enthusiastic about hiring a debt collector than when the jail began looking into the idea.

“This is kind of a moral and ethical dilemma for me,” he said.

Not unusual in Kentucky

Jails across the state have collected millions of dollars from inmates since the General Assembly started allowing them to charge fees in 2000, but many more millions are owed from those who haven't paid.

Bolton said about half the jails in Kentucky are now using a collection agency to go after booking fees.

The Fayette County Detention Center, for example, has collected more than $50,000 less than two years after hiring an outside agency to track down inmates who hadn't paid. The jail is still owed more than $3.2 million.

“You are never going to erase that debt, but every dollar I collect is one less dollar taxpayers have to pay to support the jail,” said Rodney Ballard, director of the Lexington jail. “I'm a steward of the taxpayer.”

Oldham County Jailer Mike Simpson, who also leads the
Kentucky Jailer's Association, said his jail has made $49,000 since hiring a collection agency in 2013 -- a large amount for a 115-bed facility. (Metro Corrections typically holds about 1,800 inmates.)

But Simpson also said he understands Bolton's concern about putting an additional burden on people already struggling, and other jailers around the state have expressed similar reservations.

“Some jailers say it just doesn't feel right because of the unemployment rate” in their county, he said.

Simpson said his move to hire a debt collector came at the recommendation of a state auditor, and he felt it was his duty as a public official to recoup as much as possible.

“I'm being responsible to voters and taxpayers of my community,” he said.

Some say fees unconstitutional

When an inmate is booked at Louisville Metro Corrections, whatever money they have on them is taken to pay for the $35 fee or, in many instances, the amount owed for previous bookings as well.

“If an individual comes in with $40 …$35 of that would be levied to that booking fee,” Bolton said. If family members or others put money in the inmate's commissary account – which inmates use to buy snacks in jail -- those funds are also taken to settle booking fees.

But once the inmate is released, the jail does not make any attempt to collect booking fees unless he or she is arrested and booked again.

Some Kentucky jails charge a daily fee in addition to the one-time booking fee. The Daviess County Detention Center, which was the first jail to begin collecting booking fees in 2000, charges $20 per day in addition to a $25 booking fee.

The jail hired a collection agency a few years ago but was not seeing a significant increase in funds each month, in part because the agency was taking a cut of the fees the jail was taking from repeat inmates.

“We were gaining, but it was not worth the hours we were putting in” in turning over inmate information to the collection agency, said Barbara Cecil, the jail's bookkeeper.

Many defense attorneys and civil rights advocates say booking fees are unconstitutional and unfairly target the mentally ill and homeless.

Greg Simms, a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, has been looking into filing a class-action lawsuit against Metro Corrections over the booking fees, arguing it is unconstitutional to take money from people who have not been convicted of a crime.

If the jail charges a booking fee, as the law allows, it should be added on to court costs after a person is convicted, Simms said – rather than physically taken from them when they are booked.

“We don't know if that person is guilty or not, and in fact, legally they are presumed to be not guilty,” he said. “Why are we yanking money out of their pocket saying, ‘this person is a prisoner, let's take his money'?… I believe the current law is invalid.”

As for going after inmates to collect unpaid fees, Simms said it would be like “trying to get blood from a turnip” as many of those who owe money are the “face of poverty in Louisville.”

“I would guess at least half of the money owed is from people who are indigent,” Simms said. “Whether it is legal or not, is it fair or ethical to be hunting these people down and threatening them with consequences in order to take more money from them?”

This is a question Bolton said he has been asking himself while contemplating whether to hire a collection agency. He says the booking fee is unfortunately a “one–size-fits-all application.

“There are no contingencies for a person's social economic class or … individuals with medical or mental health problems,” he said. “In some sense we marginalize the most marginalized in our community.”

If he decides to go with a vendor, the agency would basically “tap people on the shoulder with a letter advising them of their delinquent fee,” Bolton said.

Bolton added that the law does allow an inmate to be refunded a booking fee after being exonerated or charges being dismissed, but few former inmates have attempted to get the money back.

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