Crime & Courts

September 20, 2011

Fees for Wichita jail cells could be hard to collect

Everyone seems to agree it will be a tough fee to collect, but the city of Wichita figures it's worth a try.

Everyone seems to agree it will be a tough fee to collect, but the city of Wichita figures it's worth a try.

A proposal that will be considered today by the City Council would require that people arrested by Wichita police and taken to jail on municipal offenses pay for their jail cell.

But city officials estimate it would collect only 20 percent of assessed jail fees in the first year.

The city's municipal court annually collects about 55 percent of its current fines and court costs. About $2.5 million in fines and costs is turned over to a collection agency each year, said Municipal Court Administrator Donte Martin.

What's going to make it more challenging to collect jail fees is the obvious: A person could be in jail for some time and would be unable to work.

"That's going to limit their ability to pay," Martin said. "So the collection rate is going to be lower in those cases."

A check with other cities that charge inmates for their jail time, including Overland Park and Topeka, shows the collection rate is 30 percent or less, Martin said.

Today's proposal would allow the city to charge $2 per hour spent in the Sedgwick County Jail. The county charges the city $2.09 per hour. A booking fee of $10 would also be charged.

A person found not guilty wouldn't be required to pay the jail fees or booking fee, City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf said.

All municipal court cases involve misdemeanors. Such municipal charges as battery, domestic violence, driving under the influence and drugs could bring jail time.

The city of Topeka charges a $3.06 hourly rate for jail fees, the same amount it must pay Shawnee County for jail space, said city spokesman David Bevens. But Topeka's municipal court judges are allowed to waive jail fees.

Wichita's proposed ordinance says the jail fees are mandatory and can't be waived by the judge.

Since Sedgwick County began charging cities for housing municipal court defendants in 2008, Wichita has had difficulty squeezing money out of its budget for the expense. Through July, the city has paid more than $1.3 million in jail fees this year to the county, Rebenstorf said.

Charging jail fees would be another tool to help pay that cost as well as for the city's criminal justice system, Rebenstorf said.

He acknowledged collecting existing court costs isn't easy.

"We do experience a problem with people paying their court fines and costs," he said. "Judges have the authority to impose further penalty. It doesn't do any good sometimes.

"From a money standpoint, I can't tell you how much (the city would get from assessed jail fees). Legally, we'll try to get it all."

Wichita defense attorneys wonder if it's worth it to tack on jail fees.

"Of course there is nothing wrong with making guilty persons who can clearly afford it fiscally responsible for their crimes," attorney Dan Monnat wrote in an e-mail. "But requiring people to pay for their own jail cell when they can't even afford their own attorney is absurd."

Attorney Richard Ney, who doesn't deal much with municipal court and handles almost exclusively felony cases, called the proposal self-defeating because a person in jail loses his ability to pay.

"We're going to put you in jail, give you no chance to earn a living or be productive in society," Ney said, "and then we want your money because of that."

He also wondered if it would cost more to enforce collecting the jail fees than they brought into the city coffers.

"Obviously this is not going to be a money-making position," Ney said.

But Martin said there would not be additional costs or court hearings incurred by collecting delinquent jail fees.

As with fines and court costs, jail fees would be sent to a collection agency if payment arrangements haven't been made within 30 days, he said.

Martin said the city has been allowed to charge defendants with any collection costs since 2007.

Any dollar collected from jail fees would be one dollar more the city would have without those fees, he said.

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