BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – A Sullivan County Commission measure to apply daily cost of living fees for inmates at the county jail is a cause for concern for many court officials.
The commission is set to vote for the “pay to stay” program on second reading at its meeting Thursday.
Under the program, inmates at the county jail would pay $35 per day during their stay.
The measure’s sponsor, Commissioner Herschel Glover, said the measure is intended to save taxpayers money on the construction of the addition to the Sullivan County Jail.
“This resolution is to try and get some money back in for the inmates that we house and incarcerate every day,” Glover said.
Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said the projected cost for the jail is $93 million. Under the proposal, 90% of the pay-to-stay revenue would go toward paying off bonds used to finance the jail’s construction. The remaining 10% would go to the sheriff’s office.
But the proposal has been criticized by Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy in the past.
At a commission work session last, week multiple county judges voiced their concerns.
Andrew Gibbons, Sullivan County’s public defender, said the program seems good on paper for saving taxpayer money, but has far-reaching consequences. Gibbons said the program could backfire on the county if passed.
“It’s going to cost more to try to collect these fees than they’re actually going to collect,” Gibbons said.
District Attorney Barry Staubus agreed. He said costs could go up if inmates are unable to pay the fees.
“If they don’t pay, how do you collect? Do you have to file a lawsuit? We have to have an attorney? We have to use the sheriff’s department to serve process for those people?” Staubus said.
Gibbons also said the program would also put more cases on the dockets in a county court system that is already bogged down.
“The court system as a whole right now, we are just really overburdened right now. This would be just one more thing to take up time and money and resources,” Gibbons said.
Staubus said any additional pay-to-stay cases would likely go to the county attorney’s office.
The added financial burden on inmates could also have an adverse effect on crime victims due to receiving restitution, Staubus said. He said the additional fees could slow down an inmate’s ability to pay court and parole fees, slowing down restitution payment.
“We want to do our best to make sure victims get their monies, and any additional funding cost may prevent that from happening,” Staubus said.
Gibbons also had concern that the program would cause more harm to poor inmates. He said poor inmates unable to post bond would be stuck with more fees than individuals with the means to post bond.
“What you’ve done in a sense is penalize a person even further simply because they’re poor,” Gibbons said.
The resolution states inmates can complete community service at minimum wage to pay for some of their daily costs. However, Gibbons worried the program would keep people in the justice system.
“Because they can’t pay, they’ll quit going to their probation officer, their probation is violated and they’ll end up back in jail,” Gibbons said.
The resolution requires two-thirds support to pass the County Commission.