Judge to rule on jail cost-of-care issue
BRECKENRIDGE – A public defender has challenged the sheriff’s method of billing inmates for the cost of jailing them, and the judge’s decision in the case will set a precedent for how “cost-of-care” issues are handled.
The decision could affect the more than $100,000 in bills the jail has handed out in one month alone of implementing the policy – and settle the nerves of a 20-something glassblower with a couple hundred dollars who’s facing more than $7,000 in bills for being in jail and who wasn’t told he could dispute the tab.
Public Defender Dale McPheetres, who works in the Summit County courts, is disputing the cost-of-care policy, arguing the legality of how the jail, the district attorney’s office and the county courts have handled the new policy.
McPheetres and Assistant District Attorney Rachel Fresquez argued the matter before District Court Judge David Lass Monday. Lass gave the attorneys 20 days to file written arguments before he makes his decision.
In August, the Board of County Commissioners approved the new policy under which the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the Summit County Jail, can charge inmates for costs associated with housing them. The policy was made possible by a change in state statute in October 2002.
Courts routinely order defendants to pay for certain costs – everything from direct court costs to funds aimed at victims’ advocates groups, drunken driving enforcement and fines related to a crime.
The court also has ordered defendants to pay for unusual costs, such as reimbursing the jail for an out-of-state extradition.
The statute change made it possible for jails to charge inmates for other costs, including food, clothing, board and regular living expenses such as stamps for letters or the cost of prescription medication.
But, because of the novelty of the policy, no precedent exists for how to administer the charges.
Once the county commissioners approved the cost-of-care policy, jail officials began by filing motions with the court for all prisoners taken into custody since July 1.
A newly hired cost-of-care clerk at the jail filled out a motion for each prisoner, took it to the district attorney’s office for a signature and then to the county court clerk for another signature.
Pamela Henderson, the cost-of-care clerk, testified that it soon became apparent this method was a burden on court clerks who are already strapped because of a reduced state budget.
Henderson said the care charges were then added to the court document filed when defendants are sentenced, called a minimus.
Henderson said she would then give the defendants a letter from the Sheriff’s Office explaining that cost-of-care charges could be tacked on, and an estimate of those charges.
Jail officials want to charge inmates $81.10 per day they are in custody.
Capt. Mike Phibbs, the jail’s senior officer, explained in his testimony that he calculated that figure based on the direct costs found within the jail’s budget and the indirect costs of other county services such as maintenance and the county attorney’s office, divided by the total number of inmate days.
He used figures from 2001. Inmates can also pay a reduced daily charge of $45 if payment is made within 60 days or they arrange a payment plan with the jail.
McPheetres argued, however, that each inmate is entitled to a hearing on the matter, that the Sheriff’s Office cannot file motions (even with the rubber stamp of the district attorney and a judge) without a chance to argue the issue in court.
He also said each inmate must be judged on his or her ability to pay in terms of their “estate,” or net worth, at the time of their release.
McPheetres filed this particular motion on behalf of Simon Bender, a glassblower from Denver who will be living in Breckenridge upon his release. Bender is serving 90 days on a probation violation.
Bender, whom McPheetres said has only about $200 to his name, will receive a bill for nearly $7,300 when he is released Thursday.
McPheetres said he also takes issue with the jail using its entire budget to calculate the per diem cost of care.
“Inmates should not be paying for deputies’ ammunition or their retirement benefits,” McPheetres said.
The jail operates on a $1.5 million budget, $1.1 million of which comprises payroll. Indirect costs, such as plumbing work by county maintenance employees or reviews by county human resources employees, cost about $500,000 each year. The jail houses an average of 62 inmates per day for a total of about 22,000 inmate-days per year. In the month of August, the jail issued bills to inmates totaling approximately $113,000.
McPheetres has filed a similar motion on another case in County Court, but Judge Lass’ decision might apply to all such cost-of-care cases.
Reid Williams can be reached at
(970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or email@example.com.
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