Lawsuit challenges county's jail fees

3rd November, 2004
Atlanta Joural Constitution
Bill Rankin

Willie Floyd Williams Jr. spent eight months in the Clinch County Jail before he could post bail. But before he could leave, Williams was told to report to a deputy sheriff, who informed him he owed $4,608 to cover his jail costs.

After Williams signed a promissory note pledging to pay $20 per week until the balance was cleared, he was finally released. In the note, Williams acknowledged that if he failed to pay, he would be thrown back in jail.

Tuesday, Williams and a fellow Clinch County defendant filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to declare illegal the county's practice of charging pretrial detainees $18 a day for room and board.

The lawsuit contends the South Georgia county's sheriff has no authority to charge such fees to people who have yet to be convicted of a crime.

Most of these inmates, like Williams, are indigent and unable to pay the fees, said the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Valdosta.

The suit seeks class-action status on behalf of all current and former inmates who have had to pay the jail fees. The county also should be ordered to return all room-and-board fees it has collected from all these inmates, said the lawsuit, filed on the inmates' behalf by the Atlanta law firm King & Spalding and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

"It's like a debtor's prison," Courtland Reichman, one of the inmates' lawyers, said Wednesday.

"They charge people who have not been convicted of a crime and are presumed innocent and threaten to throw them back in jail if they don't pay. This is simply an abuse of authority and something that needs to be stopped."

Reichman said his legal team's investigation has found that a number of other counties do the same thing.

"That's something we intend to address," he said, alluding to more litigation.

Clinch Sheriff Winston Peterson said Wednesday that his county has been charging jail costs since before he took office 16 years ago.

"It's not illegal, or it shouldn't be," Peterson said. "The taxpayer shouldn't have to cover the costs of someone who done wrong. I don't think we're doing anything wrong."

The Clinch County jail holds about 30 inmates and serves two meals a day, Peterson said.

"It's not a hotel," he said. "You don't give anything away for free."

Peterson said that local judges often order inmates to pay their jail costs.

The sheriff said if inmates who had paid jail costs were later acquitted or had the charges dismissed against them, "we'd pay them back if we could find them."

Asked if that had ever happened, Peterson said, "I'm not certain."

Peterson declined to say how much in fees is collected each year. He said the money is used to help pay for the cost of the inmates' meals.

Clinch County Commissioner Ronda Cross-Scott criticized the practice.

"Surely it's not legal or constitutional to charge fees to an inmate who hasn't even been convicted," she said. "Once they're put into the Clinch County Jail, that's a taxpayer expense."

Cross-Scott said the county reimburses the jail's food vendor $5.50 a day for each inmate's breakfast and dinner.

Williams, 41, of Homerville, was arrested in October 2003 on charges of rape and aggravated child molestation.

On May 10, his court-appointed lawyer filed a motion for bail. On June 15, Williams was allowed to post $10,000 bond, the lawsuit said.