No More “Room and Board” Fees For Pre-Trial Detainees at the Clinch County Jail

17th April, 2006
SCHR Press Release
Sara Totonchi

County to Reimburse Former Inmates Over $27,000 In Illegally Collected Jail Fees

HOMERVILLE, GEORGIA – Today, United States District Court Judge Hugh Lawson approved a settlement agreement in a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of pre-trial detainees who were required to pay for their “room and board” at the Clinch County Jail in Homerville, Georgia.

As part of the settlement agreement, the Sheriff of Clinch County will no longer seek jail reimbursement fees from inmates, unless a court has first imposed such fees. The County will reimburse not only the named plaintiffs in this lawsuit, but all people who paid these fees in the four years prior to the lawsuit being filed, unless the fees were ordered by a court.  An estimated $27,000 will have to be returned.

“We are pleased that Clinch County will reimburse those who were affected by this practice, states Sarah Geraghty, attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights.  “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.”  The Southern Center for Human Rights and the law firm of King & Spalding, LLP provided pro bono representation to the plaintiffs in this case.

This lawsuit was filed in November 2004 on behalf of two former inmates of the Clinch County Jail against Clinch County, Georgia, Sheriff Winston Peterson, and Deputy Sheriff Patricia Suggs.  In Georgia, even courts have no authority to impose fees on criminal defendants unless those fees are specifically authorized by statute.  There is no Georgia statute authorizing the imposition of per diem fees on pre-trial detainees.  Yet, the Sheriff of Clinch County charged all inmates $18 per day, resulting in bills exceeding $3,000 in some cases.  Before release, some inmates were required to sign a contract agreeing that they would pay the fee or go back to jail.

Plaintiff Mickel Jackson was in the jail for three months.  He was charged $1,471 – over 1/5 of his annual income – for his jail stay.  Mr. Jackson is disabled and lives well below the poverty level.  He nonetheless paid the Sheriff’s Department seven installment payments totaling $713.  Even though the charges that led to Mr. Jackson’s incarceration were eventually dismissed, the Sheriff’s Department failed to return the money.

Plaintiff Willie Williams was jailed for nine months.  When he was released on bond to await trial, Mr. Williams was required to sign a promissory note agreeing to pay the Jail $4,608 or face re-incarceration.  Mr. Williams is still awaiting trial on the charge for which he was incarcerated.

The experiences of Mr. Williams and Mr. Jackson are not isolated instances.  It had been the Jail’s policy to charge inmates for the cost of room and board for the last thirty years.  The Southern Center for Human Rights learned of the practice from Ms. Ronda Cross-Scott, a former Clinch County Commissioner, who was concerned about the effects of the jail costs policy on the poor, African-American residents of Clinch County.

The process of reimbursing persons who paid jail costs began in early June 2006.

To view the Consent Order, click here.
To view the Plaintiffs’ Brief In Support of Their Motion for Summary Judgment, click here.
To view the original complaint, click here.
For media coverage of this case, click here.