Cole County’s circuit court is making some billing changes after a Missouri Supreme Court ruling last month said jail board costs can’t be billed as “court costs.”
“As of April 1, we are no longer adding board bill as costs on cases,” Cole County Circuit Clerk Dawnel Davidson told the News Tribune.
Cole County won’t be alone, after the state Supreme Court determined “no statutory authority exists to treat jail board bills as court costs.”
Osage County Sheriff Mike Bonham said: “While this ruling does change the way we invoice, it does not change the fact that the charges for board are still due.”
That’s because, since at least 1909, Missouri law has said people sentenced to serve time in a county jail “shall bear the expense of carrying him or her to said jail, and also his or her support while in jail, before he or she shall be discharged.”
But the law also says a person can make arrangements to repay their “board” debt, after they leave the jail.
The recent controversy — that ultimately landed in front of the Supreme Court — involved those who “failed to enter into or honor an agreement with the sheriff to make payments toward such debt according to a repayment plan.”
Callaway County Sheriff Clay Chism said the “consensus” of taxpayers he’s visited with is that “convicted criminals should be held accountable for the costs associated with their bad behaviors.”
The law says those jail prisoners who don’t pay their bills or make arrangements to pay them are to have their names turned over to the “clerk of the court in which the case was determined,” and the circuit clerk then “shall report to the office of state courts administrator the debtor’s full name, date of birth, and address, and the amount the debtor owes to the county jail.”
The controversy developed because some counties added those unpaid jail costs as “court costs” and, if they went unpaid, the sentencing judge could — and sometimes did — order that person back into jail until the costs were paid.
And in those cases, the new jail stay resulted in more board costs being added to the court costs.
Rod Chapel, a Jefferson City lawyer and president of both the Jefferson City and Missouri NAACP organizations, told the News Tribune he was pleased with the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“We’ve had a lot of issues about discrimination in this state,” he said. “This is one (issue) the court got right — and I’m glad they looked at it.”
Chapel knows of two people who lost their jobs and their homes because they couldn’t pay their board bills.
“One guy is still trying to pay that bill — and he’ll pay on it before he pays other things,” Chapel said, even though the man has had trouble making ends meet.
He’s heard of other cases through his NAACP contacts.
“If I know of two, how many others have there been?” Chapel asked.
The Supreme Court’s March 19 ruling involved two different cases from different counties, where jail prisoners argued they had been billed improperly.
The court’s unanimous, nine-page decision noted neither man had said he didn’t owe any money — but both objected to the counties’ adding their jail board costs to the court cost bills.
In ruling that those additional costs are not to be treated as court costs, the seven-judge Supreme Court found state law, since 2013, has said the office of state courts administrator, or OSCA, “shall seek a setoff of any income tax refund and lottery prize payouts made to a person whose name has been reported to the office as being delinquent.”
And before that 2013 change, the high court said, the law said OSCA was to “initiate collection efforts” like any other overdue debt.
Board costs vary from county to county because state law says they’re set by the county commission.
Davidson, the Cole County circuit clerk, said the county’s jail charge is $61 a night.
Chism said his jail’s “hard cost to house an inmate is currently $50.89 daily.”
Moniteau County Sheriff Tony Wheatley said: “We currently charge $45 per day per inmate.”
And Osage County Sheriff Mike Bonham said: “We currently are at $37.50 per day.”
Those three Mid-Missouri sheriffs and Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler said the high court ruling will have little effect on their daily jail operations.
Chism noted Callaway County is part of the 13th Judicial Circuit along with Boone County, and “has not assessed ‘board bills’ as a matter of court costs throughout my 19 years at the Callaway County Sheriff’s Office.”
Bonham also noted the jail inmates can be billed for more than their board — that is, mainly the meals they’re served and other incidental costs.
He pointed to another part of the same law, which says: “If any prisoner confined in the county jail is sick and in the judgment of the jailer, requires the attention of a physician, dental care, or medicine … the costs of such medicine, dental care, or medical attention shall be paid by the prisoner through any health insurance policy (from) which the prisoner is eligible to receive benefits.
“If the prisoner is not eligible for such health insurance benefits, then the prisoner shall be liable for the payment of such medical attention, dental care, or medicine, and the assets of such prisoner may be subject to levy and execution under court order to satisfy such expenses.”
Even though the law allowing board costs to be billed to a jail inmate or former inmate is at least 110 years old, Chapel said officials should be looking to reduce its use by keeping some people out of jail and getting them to pay for their crimes in a different way.
“It seems like some counties and municipalities have used these costs as a way to make money,” he said — and pointed to St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and new St. Louis County Prosecutor Daniel Bell as two prosecutors who are seeking alternate ways to charge some more minor crimes.
State pay for jail costs
All four sheriffs said they would like to see the Legislature make another change: budgeting more money for the state’s share of jail board costs.
State law says Missouri government, through the Department of Corrections, will pay jail costs for people who are convicted of state crimes and then transferred to the state prison system.
The state doesn’t pay costs for people who are sentenced but placed on probation instead.
The law says “the actual costs chargeable to the state … shall be the actual cost of incarceration not to exceed … ($37.50) per day per prisoner, subject to appropriations, but not less than the amount appropriated in the previous fiscal year.”
Currently, the state is paying $22.58 a day.
“Sheriffs across the state are constantly dealing with funding issues for their jails,” Wheeler said. “While we are being asked to do more with less, the state continues to ignore the debt it owes to sheriffs, (now) over $19 million (statewide).
“This is a huge increasing tax burden that is being pushed down to the individual citizens of each county (where) people are being held” in jails.
Wheeler added: “The problem with the statute is the phrase ‘subject to appropriations.’ The state of Missouri has chosen not to appropriate funds. The state does not find it a priority — thus, it owes sheriffs across the state over $19 million, and that number continues to grow.”
Of that $19 million statewide, Wheeler said, the state currently owes the Cole County Sheriff’s Department $288,108.56 for reimbursements.
Callaway County’s bill is $342,754.08, Chism said.
“This is approximately 10 percent of my overall sheriff’s office budget,” Chism added. “Thus, it is definitely of a local financial concern to the taxpayers of Callaway County.”
Gov. Mike Parson served 12 years as Polk County’s sheriff before he ran for state representative in 2004.
As governor, he proposes the state’s annual budget.
In a statement, spokeswoman Kelli Jones told the News Tribune: “Gov. Parson understands this issue and wants to find a way to address the county reimbursement problem. He is working with the Department of Corrections and the General Assembly on finding a solution.”
The governor’s office did not provide any more specific details about what that solution might be.
However, the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee has proposed the state pay the full cost for state prisoners held in county jails.
The Senate committee plans another round of mark-ups on the budget bills this week, then expects floor debate during the week of April 22.
If the full Senate agrees with the committee proposal, the Senate’s proposed reimbursement level would be higher than the House version of the budget, leaving an item to be negotiated during the conference committee meetings.
Neither the House or Senate proposals address the backlog of low reimbursements.
The Legislature must pass the budget by 6 p.m. May 10.
Wheeler said: “The bigger counties can absorb some of these costs, but the smaller ones will be dramatically affected. The state could cause some counties to close their jails. Even with shutting down the jail, the sheriff of the county still has to pay for their county inmates, whoever houses them, and has to transport them to and from court.
“Depending on where the counties’ inmates are housed, this could be problematic all by itself, especially if you are looking at multiple locations.”
Wheatley said, “dating back to last year,” Moniteau County’s bill for state reimbursement is $80,000.
“(That) may not seem like a lot of money in the big picture, but it dramatically affects a smaller county such as mine,” he said. “We currently keep our doors open at the jail by holding inmates for other counties.”
Getting paid for holding other counties’ inmates
“If we did not have the capabilities to do this, I believe we would be in serious trouble in finding the funds to operate,” Wheatley added. “Unlike the state, the sheriffs honor their commitments, and we are paid by these other counties on a timely basis and in full.”
But, Chism noted, every county is not in the same position to house prisoners from another county.
“Our jail is at or near capacity at all times with local Callaway County inmates,” he said. “On the occasion we hold an inmate for another county long term — which is rare — the county responsible for the inmate is billed $48 daily.”
Chism is asking Callaway County’s commission to raise that cost to $51 per day, since the jail’s actual costs now are $50.89 per day.
Wheeler said Cole County bills other counties “$50 per day after the first 24 hours.”
Bonham said Osage County charges $45 per day.
Some counties — when they have available space — also house people facing federal charges, and get reimbursed by the federal government through a negotiated contract.
Wheeler said Cole County gets $78 per day for each federal prisoner.
Chism said Callaway County can’t benefit from that source these days.
“We do have a contract with the U.S. Marshal’s Service to house federal inmates,” he said. “However, due to jail overcrowding, we have not held federal inmates for several years.”
Wheatley and Bonham also reported no income for housing federal inmates.
Looking for solutions
Wheeler said all Missouri sheriffs are trying to run their jails efficiently, without breaking taxpayers’ backs.
“Right now, sheriffs are looking for beds for inmates,” Wheeler said. “It is already hard to find space to house prisoners for some sheriffs. At a recent conference I attended, there was a sheriff who was looking at sending prisoners five hours away. Imagine the difficulties when jails across the state begin to close and how much the cost to house a state prisoner will increase.”
Wheatley said that day might be closer than we might think.
“Every year, the sheriffs across the state of Missouri are asked to do more and more without anything in return,” he said. “I believe that some of the smaller third-class counties are very close to a breaking point in their ability to provide services to their citizens.
“It seems that every year the tasks required by sheriffs continues to grow, and we are asked to do all of this with less money. It is a constant struggle to try and maintain effective law enforcement with shrinking budgets and unfunded mandates.”
Bonham added: “Like so many other issues, we as a society face tough choices (that) we will have to make — and that goes beyond the individual board bills.”