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Kentucky Supreme Court Hears Case Over Jail Fees

WFPL via Thinkstock

  The Kentucky Supreme Court will decide whether local jails are allowed to bill people for incarceration costs, even if they are later cleared of wrongdoing.

The High Court heard arguments Wednesday over a case involving a Winchester man arrested in 2014 on child pornography charges that were eventually dropped because police found no evidence.

After his arrest, David Jones couldn’t afford to pay a $15,000 bond and spent 14 months in the Clark County Jail, racking up more than $4,000 in jail fees while prosecutors pursued the case.

Jones filed a lawsuit against the county over the tab. During a hearing on Wednesday, Jones’ attorney Gregory Belzley argued that automatically charging inmates for jail costs goes against the presumption of innocence.

“We don’t address that issue by taking money from innocent people and keeping it in violation of fundamental principles that are baked into our DNA,” Belzley said.

The jail costs came from booking fees, hygiene supplies and a fee for every day Jones spent behind bars.

Lawyers for the county argue that state law allows jails to collect fees to offset incarceration costs, whether inmates are convicted later or not.

During the hearing, Justice Michelle Keller asked the county’s lawyer about the fairness of the law.

“How in any world of American justice is that fair? To bring somebody in, they can’t make bond because they can’t pay a $1,000 bond, but we give them a $4,000 bill for staying at the local county Hilton when they finally get out from the indictment?” Keller said.

Jeffery Mando, a lawyer representing Clark County Jail, argued the fees were legitimately issued.

“I understand the plight that Mr. Jones is undergoing, but it’s inherently and equally unfair to place that blame on the Clark County Jail,” Mando said. “Unfair as that may appear to this court, it’s what the law is.”

The Kentucky Court of Appealsruled against Jones last year, saying that jailers have broad power to collect unpaid fees.

During the hearing, Chief Justice John Minton called the case “an unfortunate byproduct of a broken bail system.”

“The fact that we continue to make pretrial justice based upon your ability to pay, this sort of is an unfortunate collateral result,” Minton said.

Reformers have pushed to do away with Kentucky’s cash bail system, which forces some people to spend long stretches in jail if they can’t afford to pay bail while awaiting trial, but the effort has failed so far in the state legislature.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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