By Greg Campbell, FACE THE STATE
Since October 2004, inmates in the Larimer County Detention Center have racked up more than $1.3 million in unpaid bills for wide-ranging services, and those on work release and home detention have gone in the red for an additional $82,500.
As odd as it might sound, if every inmate who got a haircut in the jail over the years actually had paid for it—along with those who’ve skipped out on other bills accrued during their incarceration, such as for medical co-pays—it would offset a projected 2011 revenue shortfall at the jail nearly four times over.
Although most of the costs of running the jail are borne by taxpayers, the inmates themselves are on the hook for certain fees and services in an effort to defray operating costs. Every inmate is charged a $30 booking fee at the time they’re processed into the facility. Those who bond out are charged a $10 bonding fee, and inmates who need to see a doctor or dentist are charged $15 medical co-pays per visit.
But of course, not every inmate has the means to pay these fees—if one doesn’t have $30 in his or her pocket at the time of booking, regardless of how wealthy they may be, the jail doesn’t collect. Instead, the inmate goes into debt to the Sheriff’s Office.
The same is true of medical co-pays. By law, the sheriff must provide medical care, whether or not the inmate can pay for it. “Medical care” extends to such things as over-the-counter medications like aspirin ($5), prescription drugs ($8, with a $30 monthly cap for indigent inmates) and even Chapstick and antifungal cream ($2 and $3, respectively).
If an inmate can’t pay, the charges are tacked onto his or her bill.
Inmates even can put haircuts and beard trimmings on their county tabs; cosmetologists visit the jail once a week. Taxpayers pick up the bill for poor inmates to receive each of those services once a month, at a cost of $12.50 and $6, respectively. Cpl. Julie Berney, the jail’s accreditation manager, said the county gives inmates a trim so that they can look respectable for court appearances.
Family and friends can make deposits in inmates’ accounts so that they can afford certain small luxuries from the jail commissary, such as candy bars or name-brand toothpaste. Debts owed by the inmate are deducted from those deposits.
But all too often, inmates simply skip out on their bills. The only option with destitute prisoners is to send them a bill after their release and if they fail to pay, as is often to the case, to turn the account over to a collection agency.
“Obviously, with the jail overcrowding, we release them even if they don’t pay (their fees),” said Sheriff Jim Alderden. “We don’t want to keep them there, so it just goes on the thing as money that’s owed to us. The medical expense is the same way. We can’t deny them medical care, so we try to do a cost recovery for services we provide.”
Alderden called the amount owed by inmates “significant, but not surprising.”
“Frankly, the majority of our clientele are indigent, and they don’t have any money,” he said. “When we passed these laws (allowing for the collection of certain fees, like for booking), it was like, ‘OK, we’ll recover something,’ but unfortunately in the hierarchy of the things that get assessed by the courts, we’re like number 17 on the list of where any money goes. The first dollar is going to go to court costs, then fines, then victim restitution. Paying for their incarceration is way down on that list.”
In comparison to the Larimer County jail, which in 2009 had an average daily inmate population of 465, the state Department of Corrections, with 33,000 inmates, is carrying only $17,882 in write-offs related to unpaid inmate bills. One difference is that the DOC doesn’t charge for booking, and other fees are significantly less than at the county level. The co-pay for a doctor’s visit, for example, is only $3 at the DOC as compared to $15 in Larimer County.
But another difference is that the DOC requires its inmates to work. Their salaries—which range from 30 cents to $1 per day—accrue in inmate bank accounts, which are automatically debited whenever a service is rendered. As with the county jail, inmates are not denied medical care or other certain services (such as legal mailings) if they don’t have enough money in their accounts, but they work the debt off.
In contrast, Larimer County inmates aren’t required to work but can shorten their sentences—and therefore the amount of time that they can rack up charges—through good behavior, participation in meetings or therapy sessions and other incentives.
Alderden predicts that revenue coming into the jail—in the form of bonds, county contributions, inmate housing fees charged to other jurisdictions, and other monies—will be about $360,000 less in 2011 than in 2010. In an e-mail to the county manager and budget director sent in early September, he laid out several cost-saving measures, including eliminating some jobs, whittling at the budget for inmate medication and even cutting the hours of the department’s press liaison. He thought about raising fees on inmates where he could, but many are already at their statutory maximum. And considering the outstanding balance for current fees, making them more expensive seemed pointless.
Were he able to collect the entire amount owed, it would provide a “very short-term” solution to the funding shortfall, Alderden said. More dire financial challenges loom, particularly the expiration in 2014 of a 0.2-cent jail operations tax that Alderden predicts will plunge the office into a $5.6 million deficit. If there’s any reason for optimism for the sheriff, it’s that it will be someone else’s headache by then. Alderden is term-limited and will leave office after the November election.