Grand jury report: Lake County Sheriff’s Office unlawfully billed inmates
Billing inmates is legal, but report shows Lake County's program was improperly run
The former sheriff of Lake County is accused of charging inmates room and board to stay in jail.
A grand jury report says Rodney Fenske and his staff improperly charged 14 inmates more than $16,000 total under the Lake County Sheriff’s Office “cost of care” program. The Lake County jail, which holds about 15 inmates, closed in March 2019.
According to the grand jury’s nine-page report, inmates were illegally charged fees and costs while incarcerated without court orders. The grand jury recommended the Lake County Sheriff’s Office repay the money that was improperly taken from the inmates.
“Cutting corners is not an option when it comes to the rights of persons either accused or convicted of a crime,” District Attorney Bruce Brown said.
It’s legal, but improperly operated
Cost-of-care programs are legal in Colorado. However, under Colorado law judges must issue a court order before cost-of-care charges can be levied against inmates — a court order for each inmate. In the Lake County jail there were often no court orders, the grand jury report said.
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Lake County’s program started when former undersheriff Bill Kirkland learned about it during a one-week training session, and brought the idea back to Fenske. On Feb. 18, 2018, the Lake County commissioners approved a resolution to charge inmates $30 each time they were booked into the jail, $10 every time they bonded out, and $15 a day for the cost of care.
One inmate, in jail for a traffic case, was charged $6,120. No money was collected, the grand jury report says.
How it unraveled
It began to unravel when Sam Reynolds, a deputy was doing some substitute shifts in the jail. An inmate complained to Reynolds that he was being improperly charged.
Reynolds looked into it and, with the help of a district attorney’s investigator and a deputy district attorney, learned that while the program is legal, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office was not running it properly.
Amy Reyes was sworn in as Lake County Sheriff on Jan. 8, 2019. Not long afterward, Reynolds told Reyes of his concerns about the program.
When Reyes asked Fenske about it, Fenske said Reynolds might have mentioned it because Reynolds had a “quality of performance issue.” The grand jury disagreed, citing a “more accurate description that Deputy Reynolds’ concerns were genuine, regarding whether the outgoing sheriff’s jail practices were consistent with Colorado law,” the grand jury’s report said.
The grand jury did not issue any indictments, but concluded that the jail’s cost of care program was improperly managed and supervised, and that Fenske’s staff was “indifferent” to running it properly.
Fenske, Undersheriff Bill Kirkland and Deputy Mike Buerke are no longer with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. Fenske retired in 2018.
The grand jury in Colorado’s Fifth Judicial District is seated through the end of 2020.
“I want to thank our grand jury for their continued hard work and dedication to ensuring the rule of law is followed, especially when a vulnerable population, jail inmates, are subjected to abuse,” Brown said.
You can read the full report here.