Tommy Lewis says he thanks God for the police officer who arrested him and put him in the Boyle County (Kentucky) Detention Center in 2019.
“That officer saved my life. I’ll proudly thank him again to his face,” Lewis says in a reverent tone from underneath a baseball cap that reads “Christian Biker.”
On this February day, Lewis sits in an office at Shepherd’s House, a day reporting program for former inmates in Danville, thinking back over his past mistakes and the most recent arrest that led to where he is now.
After decades of drug use and cycling in and out of jails across central Kentucky, Lewis says he is sober, working to land a full-time job and taking ownership of the mistakes he has made.
“I went down that wrong road. I saw that sign — ‘wrong turn’ — and that made me turn even faster,” he said.
He says he understands there are consequences he must deal with from his past choices. But he doesn’t like a consequence imposed on his mother and other family members for trying to take care of him while he was in jail.
In Boyle County, if anyone puts money into an inmate’s account — allowing the inmate to buy things like additional food, drink or clothes — 50 percent of that money is taken off the top by the county government.
Lewis says that means when his mom, who worked for more than 40 years and now lives off of an $800 disability check every month, would bring $50 to the jail for him, $25 was taken before he saw anything in his account. There’s also a processing fee of $3 assessed by the company that runs the system, meaning inmates actually get less than half of what their families spend, he says.
When he was behind bars, his brother helped him out and paid the 50 percent fee as well.
“At the end of the day, all these family members have their own lives, have their own bills, have their own kids to feed,” Lewis says. “It wasn’t just taken from them, it was taken from my nephews and nieces, taken from my brothers and sisters. It’s a financial burden. I guess I’ll never come to grips on it.”
The 50 percent fee is set by the Boyle County Fiscal Court, and while it’s complicated to track exactly where that money goes or how much of it there is, officials said it winds up paying for bills associated with the inmate, potentially including the approximately $31 daily cost to house someone in the jail.
Essentially, the fee helps cover the cost of running the Boyle County Detention Center, meaning the main funders of the jail — the general funds of Boyle and Mercer counties — pay less.
But change is on the horizon.
Jailer Brian Wofford has successfully lobbied members of the Boyle County Fiscal Court to lower it from 50 percent to 25 percent. Local magistrates voted unanimously in favor of doing so this month. They are targeting July 1 for implementation of the lower fee, aligning the change with the next budget year.
Boyle County Magistrate Ronnie Short said he believes reducing the rate will help inmates because they will have more to spend. But it will also lighten a burden on inmates’ families.
“The families coming and giving the money — it kind of helps them out, too,” Short said. “Because they’re the ones putting money in; the prisoner — he ain’t making no money. So I think it kind of relieves them, too.”
Educating for Change
Wofford said there’s been pressure to change the 50 percent fee ever since the 2018 election campaign for jailer, when he defeated LeeRoy Hardin for the seat.
The issue would come up during public forums, and many people wanted to know why the fee was so high, he explained.
“I had to kind of educate people that the jailer does not set that fee; it’s set by (state law) through the fiscal court,” Wofford said.
“Ever since then, I’ve had people on both sides of the fence — Democrats and Republicans — say, ‘Well, that seems somewhat excessive.’”
Wofford polled some other jails around Kentucky as he was examining the fee, and found that “we’re probably on the high end” in the state.
Treasurer Conley said Boyle County probably receives around $20,000 a month in revenue from “bills being paid on the canteen (fund)” at the jail. But “I don’t know what portion of that is coming from the 50 percent,” she said.
A spreadsheet provided by Wofford shows a total of $269,056.99 in disbursements from the jail back to Boyle County during calendar year 2019. But that total includes other things like medical bills paid, booking fees, bond fees, drug testing fees and more. The 50 percent fee could have been used to pay a portion of a number of different categories within the disbursement report, he said.
A Revenue Boost?
Officials haven’t said what impact reducing the fee could have on their general fund or the jail budget.
But Wofford, Judge-Executive Howard Hunt and Magistrate Jamey Gay all said they believe the change could actually result in more money being given to inmates to spend at the jail, because families would feel better about putting money in. And that could result in additional revenue for the jail’s canteen fund — where profits made from the items sold to inmates end up.
“We’re not going to lose the money,” Wofford said. “The money is going to go basically over to the canteen fund, so the inmate is going to have more money to spend, which will increase our profits in that canteen account.”
The canteen fund already currently pays the salaries of the jail’s new re-entry program director and the manager for the canteen. And Wofford said the funds will also be used for future re-entry and treatment programming he has planned.
What it amounts to is “the inmates are paying their way for treatment,” Wofford said. “They will be able to pay for their own treatment by doing it that way, off the profits we make from what we sell.”
The National Perspective
There is an ongoing nationwide effort from many corners of the criminal justice world to reform how fines and fees are assessed on people charged with crimes or sentenced to serve time.
Andrew Warren, a prosecutor from Tampa, told journalists studying the issue in New York City last fall he sees a major problem with fines and fees as they currently work.
Fines and fees “actually don’t further any legitimate goal of the criminal justice system,” Warren said.
Those goals can be summarized as “the four R’s” — retribution, recidivism, rehabilitation and restitution, Warren said.
“Fees are counterproductive because what they do is they end up destabilizing people and families on the economic margins of our society, make it even harder for them to escape and even perpetuating vicious cycles of poverty and incarceration,” he said.
“… We were supposed to have gotten rid of debtors prisons in the 18th century, yet we still have them today. … it is counterproductive and undermines the fairness of the system.”
Warren said in worst-case scenarios, like what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, local governments can actually make fines and fees such a big part of their budget that they become dependent on them to function.
“How do we address it?” Warren asked. “For one, we fund our third branch of government, and we fund it through the traditional funding mechanism: Taxes go into state coffers and state coffers pay for things we need in the state government.”
William Maurer, managing attorney for the Institute for Justice, told journalists fines and fees have increasingly become a way for many governments to fund services, instead of using traditional taxes. But that often winds up transferring the burden of funding government disproportionately onto some of the poorest members of society, he said.
“The criminal justice system is ostensibly to benefit all of us,” Maurer said. “And because it’s designed to benefit all of us, we all should pay for it, not just the people who happen to be in it.”
Doing the Right Thing
Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said her organization’s goals are to “eliminate fees in the justice system and make sure that fines are proportionate, both to the offense and the individual.”
“Every day, we are asked, ‘Who is doing this all right? Who can we point to and say we should just do this like such-and-such a place?’ And the answer is no one,” Weiss said.
“… There’s no one place that has actually solved the problem of fines and fees. So we are looking at not necessarily best practices at this point, but better practices.”
When it comes to fees charged on those in the criminal justice system, “the reform community, across the political spectrum, and a growing group of government actors also believes that the solution for fees is abolition,” she said. “The justice system is supposed to serve everyone; it is a core government function that needs to be funded by everyone.”
In Boyle County, Jailer Wofford said he thinks it’s fair to keep a fee in place, rather than remove it entirely.
“Because I do believe … they should have to pay their way,” Wofford said of inmates in the jail. “It shouldn’t be just the taxpayers. So, I see both sides of it. So, I think this is kind of a good compromise — meet in the middle.”
Ben Kleppinger is a staff writer for the Advocate-Messenger and a 2019 John Jay/Arnold Ventures Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and lightly edited version of one of the stories he prepared for his Fellowship project. The full version is available here.