Public defender marks a win for Summit inmates |

Public defender marks a win for Summit inmates

Reid Williams
Summit Daily/Reid Williams Summit County Sheriff John Minor examines the medical closet at the jail.

A recent judge’s ruling has significantly reduced the amount of money the county jail can charge inmates, essentially amounting to a victory for the public defender who challenged the “cost of care” policy.

The Sheriff’s Office, with the help of the District Attorney’s Office, is likely to appeal the decision, however.

Summit County Sheriff John Minor said Friday there are significant costs to caring for the incarcerated which taxpayers pay for and a new state statute allows the jail to recover expenses.

In the meantime, inmates who were billed the amount now ruled as too high, or who were billed without a hearing on the matter, will have to appear in court to have the cost of care order vacated.

Last year, amid budget cuts and belt tightenings in most government departments, the Legislature passed a law allowing correctional facilities to charge inmates for the costs of caring for them. But Summit jail administrators and a public defender disagreed on just what expenses the law would cover.

Public Defender Dale McPhetres first challenged the policy in September 2003 when an inmate who had served 90 days on a probation violation neared his release date and was given a bill for $7,299.

In proceedings in Summit County Court, jail administrators explained to the judge how they arrived at a daily per-inmate cost of $81.10.

Officials added up the direct cost of running a jail – about $1.5 million, more than 70 percent of which is payroll – and indirect costs that include, for example, payments to medical professionals or other county departments that provide the jail services – to total about $500,000. This number was divided by the total number of inmate-days in a year, 22,831 in 2002.

McPhetres argued that the language of the law is clear: that expenses such as payroll or training for jail officers are not covered under the cost of caring for inmates, and charges should be limited to expenses such as food, clothing or other normal costs any person might encounter in daily life.

McPhetres challenged the actual dollar amount on nine different inmates’ cases. Judge Russell Granger ruled April 23 that the expenses inmates are liable for include room and board charges and health insurance.

Other “normal” expenses, Granger wrote in his ruling, such as the repair and maintenance of equipment, transportation costs and capital outlays can be assessed, so long as they are amortized over the life of the equipment or appliance.

For these nine cases, Granger actually found that, based on the new calculations, the jail had overcharged by more than $8,000. Granger’s figure for the daily cost of care totaled about $28.

“I’m pleased with the court’s ruling,” McPhetres said Thursday. “Without preaching, or getting into the moral and philosophical issues of it, that’s what the law says.”

District Attorney Mark Hurlbert said he would heed the wishes of the Sheriff’s Office if they wish to pursue an appeal. Hurlbert said that, given tight economic times in government, every opportunity to recoup taxpayer money should be taken. “We take that seriously,” he said.

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