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Jail Time for Overdue Library Books Trending Nationwide

by Joe Watson

When police in Copperas Cove, Texas, enforced a city ordinance in 2013 criminalizing the failure to return public library books on time, they illustrated perfectly the perpetuation of misspent tax dollars. In October 2013, after being called to 22-year-old Jory Enck's apartment in Copperas Cove—about 70 miles northwest of Austin—to check out an unrelated disturbance, police arrested him after discovering Enck had a warrant for not returning a GED study guide he checked out from a local library three years prior.

Enck had to explain that he had not returned the book sooner because he checked it out just before beginning a three-year prison sentence for robbery. He then paid a $200 bond to get out of jail, returned the book and asked the court to sentence him to time-served.

"I think [next time] I will probably just purchase a book from Amazon," Enck told the Killeen Daily Herald after his arrest.

Copperas Cove mandated in 2002 a $200 fine for each library item that remains unreturned 20 days after a written notice is sent to the library patron demanding its return. If the fine then goes unpaid, the municipal court issues an arrest warrant. Similar laws have been enacted across the country, including in Iowa, Wisconsin, Vermont and Maine, as local governments use the tired refrain of shrinking budgets and increased costs to justify jailing people for minor offenses.

In Texas, where a state law passed in September 2013 now defines the failure to return library books as theft, the total cost last year of lost library items statewide exceeded $18.2 million, according to the Texas Library Association. Iowa law also classifies overdue library books as theft, and a town ordinance in Newton, Iowa, allowed police there to jail a man for more than a week for failing to return 11 library books and six CDs purportedly worth $770. (The average cost of each item would be more than $45.)

"We try to be good stewards of those things that were purchased with taxpayer funds," said Sue Padilla, director of the Newton library.

Last year, police in Charlton, Massachusetts, visited the home of a 5- year-old to collect overdue books, while police in Freeport, Pennsylvania, called the family of a 4-year-old whose four overdue books had racked up $80 in late fees. And back in 2008, a 20-year-old woman in Grafton, Wisconsin, who ignored a notice to appear in court, was arrested and booked into jail after failing to pay library fines. She was released only after her mother paid over $170, including $30 for two overdue paperbacks.

Sources: The Associated Press,