Kentucky Supreme Court says jails can’t charge fees to inmates who weren’t convicted

Ryan C. Hermens
·4 min read

The Clark County Detention Center violated the law by charging a man $4,008 for his 14-month incarceration after all charges were dropped and he was set free, the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday.

Potentially at stake in the high court’s decision are some of the millions of dollars in fees collected by Kentucky jails from their prisoners.

David Allen Jones, a Winchester factory worker, spent more than a year in jail on child pornography charges before prosecutors acknowledged they did not have the evidence to bring the case to trial and dismissed it.

The jail said Jones still owed thousands of dollars for booking and housing fees. He sued to challenge the debt, but the Clark Circuit Court and the Court of Appeals ruled against him.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court sided with Jones. The court said Kentucky law plainly states that prisoners only owe jail fees if a sentencing court says so, and in Jones’ case, there was no trial, no conviction and no sentencing.

“Jones was never ordered by a sentencing court to pay any of the fees associated with his incarceration and no order was ever pursued by the CCDC,” Justice Robert Conley of Catlettsburg wrote.

“To ignore the term ‘sentencing court’ in (state 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,” Conley wrote.

Thursday’s decisions could have broader implications for jails statewide.

Over a recent five-year period, Kentucky jails reported billing nearly $20.9 million in booking and housing fees from inmates, although it’s impossible to determine how much of that money came from cases in which a conviction and sentencing occurred.

Only half of the roughly 80 local jails appeared to charge those fees with enthusiasm, reporting sums between $50,000 and $300,000, while some jails did not claim any inmate fees.

The Clark County jail charges fees with mixed success. Financial records provided to the Herald-Leader in 2020 showed that over the previous two years, the jail billed inmates $107,360 for booking and housing fees while only managing to collect $12,374.

Charges dropped, life ruined

In October 2013, acting on a tip from Lexington police that allegedly linked Jones’ Internet Protocol address to a child sex video downloaded from the web, the Clark County Sheriff’s Department raided his home in a Winchester apartment complex and arrested him.

Jones’ bond was set at $15,000, more than he could afford to pay.

But after repeated searches over coming months, police found no evidence of child porn — not in Jones’ apartment or on any of the digital devices they seized, including a cell phone, computer tablet, Xbox, server, modem, printer and DVDs.

Jones waived his right to counsel and steadfastly asserted his innocence. Finally, prosecutors acknowledged that someone else around the large apartment complex could have accessed Jones’ wireless network, which was unsecured.

With no evidence that he had possessed child porn, they dropped the charges against him. He was released from jail in December 2014.

In a deposition in one of his lawsuits, Jones later said he had to leave Winchester, his hometown, because of the publicity over his arrest. He lost his apartment, his car, his job and most of his social circle, he said.

“My reputation, it’s shot. I mean, I’ve got people that I’ve known for years won’t have anything to do with me anymore because they believe the law,” Jones said.

County said fees are fair

In billing Jones, Clark County said it was supported by a state law that requires prisoners to help counties with the costs of their own incarceration.

The jail’s bill was based on a booking fee of $35, a $10 per diem for each day of his confinement, a $5 fee for hygiene supplies when he arrived and $2.69 for hygiene replacement supplies, the county’s lawyers told the Supreme Court.

This isn’t punishment, the county’s lawyers said, it’s just the county’s cost of doing business.

“For their services, jailers can impose and collect fees authorized by (state law) to partially offset the costs of confinement,” the county’s lawyers wrote in their briefs.

“The statute is not punitive and there is nothing illegal or inherently unfair about imposing fees for services rendered to persons in custody,” they wrote. “Neither the Kentucky Constitution, the Kentucky Revised Statutes or common law require a refund of those fees if the person is found innocent.”

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