- Associated Press - Monday, November 9, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Fees charged to inmates first upon their arrival at state jails and then on a daily basis perpetuate cycles of debt and incarceration and should be eliminated, the American Civil Liberties Union said Monday.

While in jail, inmates must often pay fees from funds provided by family members and meant for necessities such as writing materials or hygiene products, said Mike Brickner, senior policy director for the ACLU of Ohio. Inmates suffer further after they’re released and the debts are handed over to collection agencies.

The fees “load people returning to our communities with debt that they oftentimes have no hope to pay,” Brickner said.

At a minimum, jails should take inmates’ inability to pay into account when assessing fees and should not turn debts over to collection agencies that could damage offenders’ credit ratings, the ACLU said.

The civil liberties group also said inmates should be allowed to take educational and vocational courses in lieu of paying fees.

The issue has arisen around the country in recent years, along with a related debate over jailing people for failing to pay fines and fees. At least a few municipalities in nearly every state authorize the pay-to-stay fees for services and items including medical costs, food and clothes, according to a study this year by the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.

Last year in Utah, Davis County officials approved a resolution to repay inmates who had money taken out of their jail accounts to pay for lodging and medical expenses in a pay-to-stay program.

Forty of Ohio’s 75 full-service county jails charge pay-to-stay fees through a booking fee, a daily fee or both, the ACLU said. The 638-bed Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio in Williams County, which holds inmates from Defiance, Fulton, Henry, Lucas and Williams counties, has some of the highest costs, with a $100 booking fee and a daily fee of about $69, the ACLU said.

Inmates are given the option of paying the booking fee when they arrive and having it applied to the daily fee, said Jim Dennis, executive director of the Williams County corrections center. Less than 1 percent of the fees that inmates pay is collected and there is no additional jail time or legal action for those who can’t pay, Dennis said.

State law allows daily fees for expenses such as food, medical and dental treatment and a random drug test, he said.

When judges declare prisoners indigent, nothing is sent to collection agencies, he added.

“No one is threatened and no one is returned to jail for not paying their jail bill,” Dennis said.

Jails in Marion and Guernsey counties also charge some of the highest booking fees and daily fees, the report said.

David Mahoney said he owes $21,000 in jail fees following multiple stays over the years at the Multi-County Corrections Center in Marion.

Mahoney, 41, said he was jailed frequently for crimes such as forged checks and breaking and entering related to his alcohol and cocaine addictions. He lives and works at an addictions recovery center in Marion and has been sober for more than a year. He has $500 a month in living expenses, $2,000 in medical fees and $7,000 in student loans.

“People are going through trials and tribulations as it is,” Mahoney said. “Why continue to prey upon the people that are struggling as it is and going through the most?”

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus

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This story has been corrected to show the daily fee charged by the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio is $69, not $66.

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