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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday that state jails cannot keep booking fees and daily charges from inmates without an order from a judge, prohibiting a common practice by jailers over the last two decades.

The judge “is the only entity able to order the reimbursement and billing of incarceration fees, not the county jail,” the high court ruled unanimously.

The ruling was focused on a case in which a man, David Jones, was charged fees even though the case against him was dismissed. 

"The big thing is, starting today, jails are stopped from robbing people," said attorney Greg Belzley, who represented Jones and argued the case before the Supreme Court. "They can’t rob people anymore. This is an extraordinary decision."

Belzley said it is too soon to know whether jails will be forced to return money from past years. 

But it could be a significant ruling, as state jails have made millions of dollars taking fees from inmates since 2000 despite the law’s intention that a judge must decide once a case has ended if a person could afford to pay jail fees and how much is owed, if anything.

The high court unanimously overruled a state Court of Appeals decision from February 2020 finding that under the law, jailers are allowed to take money from "prisoners," meaning anyone charged with a crime and taken to jail. The court ruled that the jail could keep the money even if the person was found not guilty. 

In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted the law is “unambiguous” in that “only the sentencing court is vested with the authority to order the payment of fees associated with incarceration of a prisoner in a county jail.”

The case revolves around the 2013 arrest of David Jones in Clark County near Lexington. Jones was jailed for 14 months as he awaited his trial, paying an initial $35 booking fee and then $10 a day. While he paid more than $250, the jail billed him about $4,000 he owed for his stay after the charges were dismissed, prompting the lawsuit that has slowly wound its way to the appellate courts.

“To ignore the term ‘sentencing court’ in (the law) as the trial court did, leads to the absurd result that Jones would have more protections under the law with the oversight of the sentencing court if he had been convicted of a crime, instead of having all charges dropped,” according to the ruling.

Almost every state allows inmates to be charged room and board fees. Kentucky has made millions of dollars since the law went into effect. About half of Kentucky jails use a collection agency to go after inmates who owe fees.

Jails take money when an inmate arrives, and from a commissary account often funded by friends or family.

Before the bill passed the Kentucky General Assembly in 2000, legislators successfully added an amendment requiring the "sentencing court," or judge, to determine how much an inmate owed in jail fees after a conviction.

The judge “is the only entity able to order the reimbursement and billing of incarceration fees, not the county jail," according to the Supreme Court ruling. 

When the bill was proposed, legislators raised concerns about inmates who couldn't afford the fees, as well as constitutional issues with seizing money from someone who hadn't yet been convicted or had charges dropped, according to audio recordings of hearings at the time.

As a condition to moving the bill forward, legislators agreed to amend it on the Senate floor to address those concerns, adding specific language to "require the sentencing court, rather than allow the county, to order reimbursement" to jails, according to a review of the bill's history.

The author of the bill, former Kentucky Senate President David Williams, now a judge, previously told WDRBNews he couldn't "understand what authority (jailers have) to take any money for housing a prisoner if not found guilty."

Arguments about the language in the bill and its constitutionality have been debated by other Kentucky judges and "rejected," giving jailers the authority to take these fees as reimbursement for inmate expenses, whether the person was eventually convicted or not.

But the high court ruled that any funds taken by the jail before an order from a sentencing judge must be reimbursed.

"The Supreme Court basically said, 'read the law,'" Belzley said. "Unless they have an order from a sentencing court telling them they can hold money … then they owe it back."

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