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Freed Inmates Fight Confinement Costs at Kentucky Supreme Court

A class of former inmates in Kentucky who were either acquitted or had charges dropped argue counties cannot stick them with the bill for expenses related to their incarcerations.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (CN) --- A Kentucky county violated state law and the bedrock principle of innocent until proven guilty when it charged a detainee for confinement costs even after the case against him was dropped, the former inmate argued Wednesday before the Kentucky Supreme Court.

David Jones was arrested and booked into the Clark County Detention Center on Oct. 26, 2013, and although he spent the next 14 months in jail, all of the charges against him were dismissed and he was released from custody on April 2, 2015.

Shortly thereafter, and much to Jones' surprise, he was sent a bill from the jail for $4,000, supposedly to cover "the remaining balance of the costs of his confinement," according to court records.

Jones filed a class action alleging the county violated Kentucky Revised Statute 441.265, which he claims allows jails to seek reimbursement only from sentenced criminals, not pretrial detainees.

A federal judge disagreed, however, and dismissed his case on the grounds that even as a pretrial detainee, Jones met the definition of "prisoner" in the statute. After an unsuccessful appeal to the Sixth Circuit in 2016, Jones refiled state law claims in circuit court but they were also dismissed.

In his brief to the Kentucky Supreme Court, Jones' attorney Gregory Belzley admonished the lower court's refusal to afford any significance to the phrase "sentencing court" in the statutory language.

"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," Belzely said. (Emphasis in original.)

The attorney railed against the practice, claiming it can cause "impoverishment, a spiral of debt, marginalization from society, homelessness, unnecessary incarceration, and an inability to contribute to the tax base and society at large."

Clark County took a more measured approach in its brief, and pointed out "there is nothing illegal or inherently unfair about imposing fees for services rendered to persons in custody."

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.

It rejected Jones' argument the fees are punitive in nature, and cited Barnes v. Brown County, a 2013 case from the Eastern District of Wisconsin. In that case, the court "ruled that a $20.00 per day 'lock up fee' intended to defray the cost of housing people at the jail did not amount to unconstitutional punishment of pretrial detainees."

Arguing his client's case before the state high court on Wednesday, Belzley began with a quote from John Adams during his representation of British soldiers accused of murder in the 1770 Boston Massacre.

"It is more important that innocence should be protected than guilt should be punished," the attorney said.

Belzley emphasized the statute applied in his client's case originally allowed the county to collect confinement expenses, but was amended to include the phrase "sentencing court" before it was put into law.

Chief Justice John Minton Jr. set the tone for the majority of the comments made by members of the court during arguments when he spoke to the attorney.

"It seems to me this case is an unfortunate byproduct of a broken bail system," Minton said, although he admitted the issue was not before the court.

Belzley was quick to point he does not challenge the county's right to debit the inmate accounts of those in its jail, but drew a line under the case of his client.

"When somebody's innocent, the money has to come back," he said.

Attorney Jeffrey Mando argued on behalf of Clark County, and told the court deductions from inmate accounts are necessary because of funding issues.

"It is one tool that is designed to partially offset the cost of" housing inmates, he said.

Justice Michelle Keller disputed the attorney's claim, and pointed out the law was passed more than two decades ago, in decidedly different economic conditions.

"Anecdotally," she said, "jails have been doing much better funding wise."

Keller pressed on, and echoed the sentiments of Chief Justice Minton.

"How in any world of American justice that is fair," she asked, "can we give [these inmates] a $4,000 bill when they get out?"

Mando was sympathetic but urged the court to remember the present case is about the application of Kentucky law, not fairness.

"It's not like the jail acted like an overzealous creditor … when the charges were dismissed four months [after Jones's release]," he said. "I get the fact it is unfair to Mr. Jones … but the General Assembly said the jail could do it."

The attorney reminded the court that all federal due process claims brought by Jones were dismissed, and argued he has no legal cause of action, no "hook" by which to secure recovery.

"While I understand the equitable argument," Mando said, "the jails don't have a choice about whom they get to house and feed."

In his rebuttal, Belzley disputed his opposing counsel on one point, but agreed with him on another.

"Make no mistake," he said, "if this court rules the way [the defendants] want it to, they can pursue collection on that bill. I know jails are underfunded, but that is an issue to be addressed by taxation."

No timetable has been set for the court's decision.

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