FOX 11 Investigates: Taxpayers get stuck with inmate jail bills

GREEN BAY – Crime doesn’t pay, but it’s costing you, the taxpayer, plenty when it comes to housing inmates in the county jail.

The bill adds up fast for those sentenced to jail time in counties around Wisconsin.

In Brown County, the cost to house each inmate for a single night $52.44. And by state law, that’s what Brown County can charge inmates so taxpayers don’t pay for those committing the crimes.

Lt. Phil Steffen keeps track of what it costs to house inmates at the Brown County Jail. The total per day per inmate is $52.44.

“That’s everything. The cost of the facility, the cost of staff, food, everything is $52 a day,” said Steffen.

So is that what the sheriff’s department charges inmates, as allowed by law?

“No, we charge $20 a day for the inmates,” said Steffen.

Last year the Brown County Sheriff’s Department billed inmates more than $1 million in daily fees, charging the $20 a day rate. But by law, the county could have charged those inmates more than $2.5 million.

And the state legislature this past spring added more teeth to the law, giving counties two years instead of one to collect those jail payments.

State Rep. Chad Weininger (R-Allouez) supported the legislation which offers more incentives for inmates to pay.

“Really, the intent behind the legislation was to give counties a little relief and put the burden on the people who are actually costing the taxpayers money, which are the inmates,” said Weininger.

(Weininger also currently holds the title of Director of Administration for Brown County. He’s the one who keeps track of the county’s money.)

So FOX 11 Investigates asked, why not charge the full amount to inmates?

“Um. Trying to get money from people that don’t…” Steffen said before pointing out, “the county board sets the fees.”

That’s right the county board sets the fee not the sheriff’s department.

Pat Buckley is a member of the Brown County board.

“Why only charge $20 when it’s really costing $52?” was the question posed to Buckley.

“Well I know part of it is based on recommendations we get from the sheriff’s office, and as well as corporate counsel. And, part goes on the ability to pay,” said Buckley

Since inmates locked up aren’t able to work, they’re not making money. And Steffen says many former inmates don’t have the best employment record.

“A lot of them have no job, or jump job to job so their ability to pay is less and their willingness to pay is less,” said Steffen.

Here are the facts. Out of the $1,053,500 billed by the sheriff’s department last year for inmate stays in the jail, only $95,000 was paid by inmates when they received their bills in the mail. That means $958,491 was left for taxpayers to pick up.

The sheriff’s department used to turn over the uncollected invoices to the county’s legal department. But Sheriff John Gossage tells FOX 11 Investigates the county didn’t have any better luck, and just wrote off the losses. That’s when the sheriff’s department last summer began using a collection agency to try and bring in more cash.

“So with the collection agency it helps us,” said Steffen. “It takes that task away from our accounting staff and contractually benefits us because that’s money we had trouble collecting to start with.”

In the last six months of 2013, Professional Placement Services out of Milwaukee brought in an additional $20,215 by following up on overdue jail bills. The first three months of this year PPS brought in another $17,000 ($16, 971).

And the incentive to pay is also greater with the new law that went into effect earlier this year. It allows the Department of Revenue to intercept tax refunds. Any jail debt can also show up on one’s credit report.

“There’s more teeth in it now,” Steffen said. “It goes against their credit report. It goes to tax intercept. And those two programs are what’s making a lot of these people pay,” said Steffen.

Brown County is able to get more money from inmates who are granted work-release privileges, or are eligible for at-home GPS monitoring. These inmates are required to  pay their bill to take part in these programs.

Work-release inmates are charged $20 a day, and $238,000 was collected last year. GPS inmates are charged $23 a day and brought in another $559,000.

Could the county collect more by charging more? Even with most inmates not paying?

“At a cost of $52.44 feasibly some of the inmates would be able to pay that?” asked Mark Leland, FOX 11 Investigates reporter.

“Feasibly,” said Steffen.

“Some might be able to pay a portion of that,” said Leland.

“Again all these fees are set and approved by the county board,” said Steffen.

“Should taxpayers pick up the bill for county inmates?” Leland asked Buckley.

“Do I think so? No,” said Buckley. “However again we have to look at their ability to pay.”

Buckley says increasing the fee charged to inmates could be considered in the future. And while he might support a hike, it would still need the approval of the board as a whole.

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