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Missouri County Votes to Eliminate Jail Fees, Wiping Out $3.4 Million in Debt for Former Prisoners

by Douglas Ankney

In August 2019, a half-dozen 10-year-old jail fees were eliminated by the county council in St. Louis, Missouri, wiping out nearly $3.4 million in debt for unpaid fees owed by former prisoners and current detainees at the county jail.

“Many of the individuals in custody already face significant financial hardships,” said Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, a veteran of the St. Louis County Police Department and interim director of the St. Louis County Department of Justice Services, who recommended eliminating the fees. “It is counterproductive for us to make things more difficult for those reentering the community after their release by saddling them with debt.”

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, who also recommended eliminating the fees, noted that many of the jail’s prisoners were facing nonviolent charges and in need of permanent housing, employment and mental health services. Given their limited financial resources, the fees made it more likely they would become homeless, reoffend and end up back in custody, Page said.

The county spends about $80 per day for each person held at the jail. The fees that were eliminated had been adopted in 2009 and netted the county around $380,000 annually – about what it costs to hold 13 people at the jail for a year. The fees included a $70 booking fee, a $20 bond fee charged to anyone who posted a bond, a $2 co-pay when a prisoner saw a nurse, a $5 co-pay when a prisoner saw a dentist, a $5 fee for dispensing medication and a $20 medical assessment fee for each prisoner.

Jeff Smith, a former state senator and author of the book Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, praised the county council’s action, calling it “both humane and economical.”

“Many people in jail are there precisely because they lacked resources in the first place,” he said. “Sending them home deeper in debt and in poorer health only perpetuates the vicious cycles in which many vulnerable people find themselves.”

In making his recommendation to the council at its July 2019 meeting, Doyle emphasized that his “primary goal is to provide a secure jail environment and help keep our community safe.”

“But we also want to give inmates the opportunity to successfully re-enter the community,” he added. “Wiping clean their jail debts can help facilitate that transition.”

At the same meeting, the county council voted against a new jail phone contract with Securus Technologies, Inc., owned by Los Angeles-based investment firm Platinum Equity, LLC. Securus has been accused of grossly overcharging prisoners and their families for phone calls – as much as $24.82 for a 15-minute call – and has a long history of price-gouging. The proposed contract with Securus would have netted St. Louis County an additional $130,000 in “commission” kickbacks annually. Page recommended setting aside the extra revenue to hire additional jail medical staff, but the council voted otherwise.

Smith also argued for improving healthcare at the jail in order to prepare prisoners “for steady, successful employment and reintegration into our region’s social fabric upon their release.”

He noted that would make “far more sense than allowing people’s medical conditions to worsen in custody, which makes them more likely to end up clogging emergency rooms, costing hospitals a fortune in uncompensated care, or, in extreme cases, losing their lives.”



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