CLARK COUNTY, Ky. — Running a jail is expensive, and civil rights lawyer Greg Belzley says most counties don’t have enough money to do it.

“So what has happened? The jails just started robbing people,” he said. 

What You Need To Know

  • Kentucky jails have been charging inmates for their pretrial detention, even if those inmates are never convicted

  • A man held on charges in Clark County in 2013 sued after he was charged $4,000 despite his charges getting dismissed

  • The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in favor of the man last week

  • The ruling prohibits jails from collecting fees from inmates without an order from a judge after a conviction

Belzley represents a man, David Jones, who spent 14 months in the Clark County Detention Center on charges that ended up being dismissed.

The detention center still sent him a bill for about $4,000 dollars, though.

Jones sued the jail and the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in his favor last week, effectively telling county jailers that they can’t charge fees to someone until they’ve been convicted of a crime.

“We live in a state, thankfully, that at least in respect to this statute is very protective of the constitutional rights, and the due process rights, and the presumption of innocence that all of the citizens in the state enjoy,” Belzley said.

At the heart of the challenge was a sentencing law passed in 2000 that requires a “sentencing court” to impose fees after an inmate is convicted.

Lawyers for the county argued in court that Clark County should be allowed to impose the fees on inmates, regardless of a conviction.

“The statute is not punitive and there is nothing illegal or inherently unfair about imposing fees for services rendered to persons in custody,” attorney Jeffrey Mando wrote in a brief filed last year.

The justices unanimously disagreed with Clark County, and Belzley said he’s glad jails across the state won’t be allowed to collect money from innocent people anymore.

“We’ve got laws in this country. We’ve got constitutional civil rights that require due process,” he said. “People can’t just come up and put you in jail for no reason. People can’t take away your property for no reason. People can’t clean out your wallet or your purse for no reason.”

Clark County Jailer Frank Doyle declined to comment on this story, citing pending litigation.

A report from the Vera Institute earlier this year says jails pull more than $24 million a year from inmates in fees and other charges, according to data from 2019.

While no data on the fees generated specifically by pretrial detainees is available, Ashley Spalding with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy said being in jail for months, even years before a trial is tough on them.

“And there are so many injustices associated with that,” she said. “People, again, they’re presumed innocent at this point in the system, and if they’re incarcerated pretrial, they lose a job. It takes a toll on family members.”

Spalding authored a report last month, detailing issues with jail overcrowding while also advocating for ending cash bail and other reforms.

“So if fewer people were incarcerated pretrial — if we had policy changes that meant that fewer people are incarcerated pretrial — then that would alleviate some of the financial pressure that the counties are dealing with,” she said.

Multiple messages seeking comment with the Kentucky Jailers Association were not returned.