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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: Sheriff May Not Charge Jail Fees

by Matt Clarke

On January 5, 2010, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that the Sheriff of Bristol County could not charge fees for certain jail services.

In 2002, prisoners at the Bristol County House of Correction and Jail in Dartmouth, Massachusetts filed a complaint in state Superior Court challenging various fees they were being charged, and requesting declaratory and injunctive relief.

The fees included a $5 per day “cost-of-care” fee, $5 per medical appointment, $5 for an eyeglasses prescription, $3 per pharmaceutical prescription, $5 per haircut or beard trim and $12.50 for GED testing. If a prisoner was indigent the requested service would still be provided, but a charge would be entered in his or her jail account and the fees deducted from any future monies deposited in the account for up to two years, even if the prisoner was released and later re-incarcerated.

The only exceptions to the fees were that indigent prisoners were allowed one free haircut a month and prisoners were not charged for medical services related to admission health screening, emergencies, prenatal care, lab work, diagnostics, and contagious and chronic disease care.

The Superior Court determined that the plaintiffs were entitled to summary judgment on the grounds that the Bristol County Sheriff had no authority to impose the fees. [See: PLN, Jan. 2005, p.13]. The sheriff appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court, on its own initiative, transferred the case from the appellate court.

The Supreme Judicial Court rejected the sheriff’s claim that he held a constitutional office entitling him to do anything necessary to carry out the functions of his office. The Court found that the sheriff’s duties were regulated by the legislature and rejected his claim that he had the right at common law to impose the fees, because he failed to cite any authority demonstrating that such a common law right existed.

The Supreme Judicial Court held that the Commissioner of Corrections had various statutory obligations with respect to county correctional facilities, including the establishment of certain fees. The commissioner had established a fee of $1.50 per haircut for prisoners in state facilities, but had not set such a fee for county prisoners. Nonetheless, this could be seen as authorizing the sheriff to charge no more than $1.50 per haircut.

However, the sheriff had no authority to establish fees for cost of care, medical services or GED testing. The legisla-ture had expressly authorized what fees could be charged by local sheriffs, and had not included such fees in the statutes. This implicitly restricted the fees that sheriffs could charge to those authorized by the legislature. Further, charging a GED test fee contravened M.G.L. c. 127 § 92A, the clear intent of which was to provide prisoners with free access to GED testing.

The Court found that only the Commissioner of Corrections had the authority to establish medical fees for county prisoners, though he had not done so. Therefore, the Superior Court’s order granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs was affirmed. The prisoners were represented by Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services attorney James R. Pingeon. See: Souza v. Sheriff of Bristol County, 918 N.E.2d 823 (Mass. 2010).

This victory may be short-lived, as the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a budget amendment in April 2010 authorizing county sheriffs to charge prisoners a “daily custodial fee” of up to $5, plus fees for various other services. The state Senate passed a similar amendment in May that did not specify the amount of the daily fee that sheriffs could charge. [See this issue’s cover story, p.10].

Critics sharply objected to the fees, noting that imposing debts on prisoners was counter-productive and could hurt re-entry efforts. Even some sheriffs opposed the fee plan, with Hampshire County Sheriff Robert Garvey calling it “very shal-low thinking” and a “terrible, terrible idea.”

Rebekah Diller, a deputy director at the Brennan Center for Justice, said, “When you burden someone with debt com-ing out of prison, it’s yet another barrier to successful re-entry, and yet another factor that can contribute to recidivism. Very often you create a debt that won’t be paid but stays with the person and has consequences.”

In late June 2010, the Massachusetts House-Senate Ways and Means Conference Committee decided not to adopt either the House or Senate versions of the jail fee amendment. Instead, a commission was formed to study the issue of imposing fees on prisoners in county jails – which, in legislative-speak, means it’s likely only a matter of time before the commission releases a report in favor of such fees, which will then be approved.

The commission will examine “the types and amount of fees to be charged, including a daily room and board fee and medical co-pays; revenue that could be generated from the fees; the cost of administering the fees; the impact on the affected population; use of the collected fees by the respective sheriff’s office; method and sources of collecting the fees; impact on the prisoner work programs; waiver of the fees for indigents; exemptions from the fees for certain medical ser-vices; and forgiveness of the balance [of the fees] due for good behavior.”
The commission is required to issue its report by March 1, 2011.

Additional sources: Valley Advocate,

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Related legal case

Souza v. Sheriff of Bristol County