The Denver Post
Metro area sheriff's departments have collected millions of dollars in booking fees from inmates, and the departments often run an ongoing tab for those who can't afford to pay when they're arrested. The tabs have left some people owing hundreds of dollars that may eventually be confiscated if they return to jail.
Legal experts say the practice may be a violation of state law — a legal conclusion that Denver's city attorney also reached last year before the sheriff's department discontinued collecting old debts for booking fees.
Now, after being contacted by The Denver Post, a number of other departments are also reconsidering whether they have the authority to charge people for previous jail bookings.
Advocates warn that tracking and collecting unpaid fees from people repeatedly booked into jail may unfairly target the mentally ill and homeless.
"A key purpose of this fee was to benefit mentally ill and indigent inmates, and I was concerned that — in practice — it could be disproportionately impacting these very populations," said Denver's independent police monitor, Nicholas Mitchell.
In 2004, legislators passed a law allowing sheriff's departments to collect up to $30 from everyone who is booked into a county jail. The law requires that the fee be collected when someone is booked into the jail, but it does not allow deputies to collect unpaid fees if someone is booked into the jail multiple times, according to a review by the Denver city attorney's office and the Office of the Independent Monitor.
The Denver Sheriff's Department's decision to stop collecting debts caused the revenue collected from fees to drop to a seven-year low in 2013, reducing the yearly total by more than $113,000. But the decrease — by default — also reduced funds the department dedicates to treatment programs and deputy training by more than $45,000 from the previous year.
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Mitchell said the fee was intended to help care for people who are mentally ill and indigent. But a complaint his office received early last year revealed that the fee — and the inability to pay it — was creating possibly overwhelming debts for people who are repeatedly booked into jail for low-level crimes.
In October 2012, Robert Lowe was booked into the downtown Denver jail for the seventh time in 19 months. Lowe — who listed his return address as a state-run, inpatient mental health institute — had incurred more than a dozen municipal charges, the most serious of which including trespassing and urinating in public.
But when Lowe was released, the $200 he had in his pocket when he was booked into the jail was gone. The money was confiscated and used to cover booking fees he could not pay during previous stints in the jail, according a letter from the sheriff department's internal affairs bureau.
Even though $200 was all he had, it wasn't enough. Lowe still owed $7.
"I was concerned about the possibility that there were others like this individual — folks who are indigent or homeless — who are possibly being arrested for low-level street offenses and developing these large tabs with the sheriff's office," Mitchell said. "It seems to me there is quite a bit of risk that the practice of collecting past fees could negatively impact the poorest and neediest folks."
Mitchell commended Denver Sheriff Gary Wilson, who quickly addressed the concerns and changed the department's procedure, and Lowe was issued a full refund. But at least six of Colorado's largest sheriff departments — Arapahoe, Boulder, Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson and Larimer counties — continue to collect previously unpaid fees.
None of those departments use collections agencies or issue tickets for those who do not pay. Most departments have been collecting unpaid fees from inmates since the program launched 10 years ago.
Funds raised from the fee in Denver go toward deputy training and two programs in the city's two jails, Wilson said. One program is designed to treat people with severe mental illness and-or co-occurring substance abuse. The second works to provide people a 30-day prescription for their non-controlled, mental health medications.
"The goal is trying to utilize those funds to benefit those who are in our custody and the taxpayers," Wilson said.
But the practice of keeping tabs on those who do not pay the booking fee singles out people who are least able to pay, said Sean McDermott, president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. He said other sheriff's departments should rethink their practices.
"The plain reading of the statute says they should collect the fee up front," McDermott said. "It is similar to a low-income person running up a debt, whether it be a payday loan or a credit card they cannot pay off."
After The Post alerted other sheriff departments, several said they were unaware of Denver's policy change.
Jefferson County Sheriff Department officials began reviewing their policy, said spokesman Mark Techmeyer. The Larimer and Boulder counties sheriff's departments have no plans to change their policies, but the departments will reach out to Denver to learn more about their decision. Sgt. Ron Hanavan said the Douglas County Sheriff Department may evaluate the practice in the future, but it had no immediate plans to change it.
The El Paso County Sheriff Department presented the issue to its legal adviser a few years ago and decided the practice was allowed under the law, Sgt. Greg White said Thursday.
Opponents have called the fee a tax on the poor. Supporters argued that earmarking funds to help with the growing demand for mental health treatment would help decrease inmate populations and some claimed the fee would not be paid by the mentally ill or indigent.
"It is an unfair tiered system as far as people who have those resources and those who don't," said Eric Smith, programs manager for The Mental Health Center of Denver.
Smith works with a program designed to help people with mental health disorders who come up against the criminal justice system. While people who are mentally ill or indigent should be held accountable for their crimes, Smith says there should be more wiggle room in applying the booking fee.
Individuals with a limited or fixed income often have an average of $30 of spending money a week, but many have as little as $10, Smith said.
"It's a no-win situation for them. If they don't have the money now, why do you think they would have the money later?" Smith said. "There should be a little bit more room to accommodate people who are in difficult straits."
If someone is cleared of all charges, they may apply to have the fee refunded. That process, however, can be tricky to navigate, Mitchell said.
Each department said the revenue collected from the fees accounts for a small portion of their overall budget.
Between 2005 and 2013, the Denver sheriff's department collected $4.7 million in booking fees — 4 percent of the department's overall budget in 2013.
At any given time, 30 to 40 percent of inmates housed in Denver's two detention facilities are dealing with a mental health disorder. On average, it costs about $56 a day to house someone in the general population, but it costs more than double that amount to house someone who needs medical attention or mental health treatment, Wilson said
Read more: Jail inmate booking fees raise concern, may violate Colorado law - The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_25770213/jail-inmate-booking-fees-raise-concern-may-violate#ixzz31pAnbgbe
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