Collecting fees from inmates proves tough

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 15, 2003

ST. PAUL (AP) &045; Charging jail inmates for some of the cost of locking them up isn’t paying off like some county officials had hoped.

&uot;I think the public needs to understand that there is a good lesson here,&uot; Paul Wilson, a county commissioner in Olmsted County, which found its collection program cost more than it brought in.

&uot;Even with the best intentions, you cannot get blood out of a turnip.&uot;

Email newsletter signup

During the past year, at least one-quarter of Minnesota counties started charging for room and board. Dubbed &uot;pay to stay,&uot; the purpose was two-fold: bring in money to help offset ever-rising jail costs and send a message to criminals that jail will cost them in more ways than one.

But few inmates bother to pay.

In the first four months, Olmsted County spent about $13,000 in administrative costs to collect $7,261. The county, which is home to Rochester, collected less than 2 percent of the $546,450 it billed. Now the county is switching from a sliding scale fee of up to $70 to a flat $25 fee in an effort to rein in costs.

No one expected the majority of inmates to pay their bills, and many counties did not project revenue before they started. But law enforcement and court officials now are debating whether pay-to-stay efforts are a good use of staff time. Some jail administrators say the revenue isn’t worth the work, and defense attorneys argue that there are more effective methods to curb escalating jail costs.

Sheriffs’ officials, however, say it’s too soon to determine how much the fees will generate in the long term and that earning something is better than nothing.

&uot;A dollar derived from people who pay to stay is a dollar that taxpayers don’t have to contribute,&uot; said Chief Deputy Scott Gudmundson of Sherburne County, where staff has collected about $15,000 so far, or about 2 percent of the amount that has been billed in the first year. &uot;Certainly it’s worth it. If it’s a buck, it’s a buck.&uot;