The Supreme Court in the state of Kentucky is considering a case that challenges a longstanding practice by county jails there to charge jail inmates fees for staying behind bars.
And the case suggests that the fees charged to inmates in cases where charges are dropped or they are found innocent amounts to a conflict with the “bedrock American principle is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
The case revolves around David Jones who was arrested and booked into the Clark County Detention Center in 2013. He spent 14 months there, after which all of the charges against him were dismissed and he was released.
But then the county billed him for $4,000 for “the remaining balance of the costs of his confinement,” according to court records.
Courthousenews, which profiled the dispute, explained the current challenge pending before the high court is on behalf of a class of former inmates who either were acquitted or had their charges dropped.
The focal point of the arguments is a state law that the county argues allows it to bill people for their stays in jail. Jones’ case charges that the statute specifically refers to the “sentencing judge,” meaning that those inmates who are not sentenced, because there is no conviction, cannot be charged.
The case is being retried in state court after federal judges decided to allow the state penalty for inmates who end up with no conviction.
Gregory Belzely, a lawyer for Jones, said, “The statute plainly attaches no reimbursement obligation to anyone other than a sentenced prisoner, and grants no right to counties, except for medical expenses, to seize and keep cash in the possession of innocent persons like Mr. Jones who ultimately were not ‘sentenced’ to anything.”
Clark County argued in its filing that there is nothing illegal or unfair about “imposing fees for services rendered to persons in custody,” the report explained.
“While it admitted a detainee’s due process rights can be violated by ‘conditions that amount to punishment,’ the county emphasized the recovery of room and board expenses serves a legitimate governmental interest,” CN reported.
The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments recently, at which Belzley explained that the state law allowing a county to collect confinement expenses had been amended, before it became law, to include a reference to the “sentencing court.”
Belzley said the county can debit an inmate’s account while those inmates are in jail, but said, “when somebody’s innocent, the money has to come back.”
Attorney Jeffrey Mando, told the court on behalf of the county the fees are needed because of jail funding issues.
Justice Michelle Keller was skeptical, the report said.
“How in any world of American justice that is fair,” she said, “Can we give [these inmates] a $4,000 bill when they get out?”
Court documents show the jail also confiscated more than $256 that was deposited to Jones’ credit with the jail, and kept it when he was released.
The filing on behalf of Jones said, “Persons arrested for a criminal offense enjoy a presumption of innocence protecting their life, liberty, and property, until (1) they plead guilty to the offense or (b) their criminal culpability is proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”
It continued, “Absent a plea or an adjudication of guilty, a person is presumed innocent and owes the state nothing.”
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