Judge tells Davis County jail to keep its hands off inmates' money
A judge has ordered the Davis County jail to stop taking money from inmates' personal accounts to cover lodging and medical expenses.
The practice, known as Pay For Stay, began with a 2007 state law enabling counties to collect payments from inmates to transfer jail costs away from taxpayers.
But in an order filed Wednesday, 2nd District Judge Michael G. Allphin wrote that the payments are a form of restitution, which requires authorization from the courts.
The issue was raised about a year ago by public defender Todd Utzinger after inmates began to complain that their personal accounts typically used for food and items from the jail commissary were being emptied in what became known in the jail as "account sweeps."
Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings offered another name for the practice: "illegal, unconstitutional accounting enemas."
By seizing the payments without a court order and even before sentencing, inmates were denied the chance to object to that part of their sentences or seek exemptions for poverty, Rawlings argued.
"I view it as a significant violation of people's rights," he said. "They're going to get sued, and they're going to lose."
Rawlings said he advised the sheriff's department to stop the account sweeps when Utzinger raised the issue last year. However, inmates began to complain again in the fall and again in recent months, said Neal Geddes, chief deputy county attorney.
Sheriff's spokeswoman Susan Poulsen wouldn't comment on whether the department received legal advice to stop the practice or whether that advice was followed. She also wouldn't comment on Utzinger's report that Sheriff Todd Richardson was receptive to the advice but other administrators persisted with the sweeps.
In a press statement on Thursday, sheriff's officials wrote that the jail in March discontinued Pay For Stay collections for inmates who hadn't been sentenced. However, Allphin ordered that funds not be taken from the accounts of any inmates sentenced or not. He wrote that the automatic collections not only prevent defendants from weighing in but also disrupt the order in which restitution is to be disbursed. State law gives priority for restitution to victims and third parties who serve victims: government agencies and insurance companies, for example. Correctional facilities are at the bottom of the list. By collecting fees for jail time without court approval, Davis County is bypassing other parties who may be due payment first, Allphin wrote.
Allphin instructed the county to submit Pay For Stay claims to the court for review.
"Judge Allphin's order has further complicated the issue," the sheriff's press release states. "The Davis County Sheriff's Office will comply with Judge Allphin's order but is deeply concerned with the suggestion to the public that it has violated the law."
The county collected $369,000 through Pay For Stay in 2013, according to the statement. It waived nearly $860,000 in fees in exchange for inmate labor.
"When Pay For Stay was enacted into law, the taxpayer's burden of housing offenders was reduced dramatically," the press release states. The sheriff's department also noted that the personal accounts are used for "luxury items," as the jail provides all basic necessities.
Some inmates are seeking refunds for Pay For Stay payments collected without a court order, Utzinger said.
"That's a separate civil issue at this point," he said. "It's a little unclear how that's going to be handled."
Also unclear is how other counties will react to Allphin's order. Davis County announced it will stop account collections for all inmates, even though Allphin's order applies only to criminal cases only over which Allphin has presided. However, the sheriff's department noted, "The policies in place by the Davis County Sheriff's Office are identical to policies used by many other jails in the state."
The order is not binding outside of Davis County, Utzinger said, "but other counties are going to give a second thought to how they're doing things."
"I don't think Davis County is alone in adopting procedures that don't comply with the statute."