South Georgia county to repay inmates saddled with 'jail bills'

18th April, 2006
Associated Press
Greg Bluestein

ATLANTA - After eight months in the Clinch County Jail, ready to rejoin his three children and find a new job, Willie Williams Jr. had one more item on his to-do list: Repay the county a $4,608 "room and board" bill for his time behind bars.

In a settlement reached this week, Williams could have some money coming back to him.

Clinch officials agreed to repay Williams and other prisoners who had been ordered by the county - not a judge - to pay the special fees. All told, $27,000 will be returned to hundreds of inmates who paid the fees between 2000 and 2004.

The county also agreed to stop imposing the fees on inmates who have not yet been convicted.

The agreement resolves a federal lawsuit contending that the southeast Georgia county had no legal power to charge inmates who have yet to be convicted of a crime an $18 daily jail fee.

"The sheriff had no authority to charge these fees and he certainly had no authority to threaten people with jail time for failure to pay them," said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Geraghty's group and Atlanta law firm King & Spalding filed the complaint in November 2004, arguing that even judges can't impose fines unless they are specifically authorized by Georgia law.

Clinch County officials had argued the fees were not fines but instead a way for the county to get at least a partial reimbursement for incarcerating suspects.

The county had been charging inmates the special fees for at least 17 years, said Rick Strickland, an attorney for the county and the sheriff.

Many of the inmates, he added, will only be receiving $18 for one night in jail.

"It would have cost way more to continue litigating this matter than to just resolve it," he said.

Sheriff Winston Peterson, who is in charge of the county's jail, would not comment.

Although the practice had been going on for years, Ronda Cross-Scott, a former county commissioner, helped bring it to light after her constituents complained that they needed to borrow money to pay a "jail bill."

She pressed the county to drop the practice, spoke publicly against it at commission meetings and, when it became apparent the county would take no action, met with prominent attorneys to help engineer a legal challenge.

"This was (officials') vacation money," she said. "There was no paper trail for the money that was collected."

Since taking her stand against the policy, Cross-Scott lost her seat in a narrow election and was slapped with a 14-count felony indictment for voter and election fraud. She said the charges are a retaliation for her public stance against the county's practices.

"You open your big mouth and they go after you," she said. "But if I had to do it all over again, I'd do it."

Strickland dismissed Cross-Scott's comments, saying the jail fees were deposited in the county's general fund and properly documented. "She's got her own ax to grind with the county," he said.

Williams, one of two plaintiffs in the lawsuit, was arrested in October 2003 on charges of rape and aggravated child molestation.

In June 2004, the court allowed him to post a $10,000 bond, the lawsuit said. But before he was released, he had to sign a promissory note that agreed to weekly payments of $20 until the debt was paid. Before the settlement was reached, he said, he had paid a total of $140.

The 43-year-old recently landed a job at a nearby blueberry farm and plans to take his children out to dinner with the refunded cash.

As for his case, he had pleaded not guilty and said the charges were dropped Monday.

"Now I don't have to worry about nothing no more," he said. "I'm just happy to be happy again."