Jail officials: Inmate housing fees difficult to collect in Mecosta, Osceola counties

OSCEOLA COUNTY — County jails throughout the state of Michigan may be allowed charge inmates by the day for their stay at facilities, but local officials in Mecosta and Osceola counties are well aware it's no moneymaker.

As part of the Prisoner Reimbursement to the County Act of 1984, Michigan law states county jails can charge inmates up to $60 per day. However, at the the Osceola County Jail, inmates are charged significantly less for housing fees, while the neighboring Mecosta County Jail does not impose a housing fee.

In 1993, Osceola County Board of Commissioners set the housing fee for jail inmates at $7 per day, said Osceola County Jail Administrator Capt. Russ Wayne. The fee has not changed in 25 years.

"In 2017, we collected only $7,216 in housing fees," Wayne said. "The housing fee can only be charged to inmates who have been sentenced. Overall, it's difficult for us to get that money back."

According to Wayne, the jail operates on a budget of about $1.6 million each year, with incoming revenues of about $104,000. Officials know not to count on housing fees for funding, he said.

While the Osceola County Jail will send bills to collections, Wayne tries to avoid that and sends a letter to each inmate upon release. In the letter he offers to reduce an outstanding bill by 50 percent if the person contacts him within 30 days to set up a payment plan.

"I do what I can to get that revenue," he said. "I had one inmate who paid $10 a month for three years to pay off his bill, but he paid it."

The Mecosta County Jail has never had a housing fee for inmates, said Jail Administrator Capt. Kevin Wood.

While Wood can understand wanting to recoup some of the costs spent on housing inmates, he supports not having a housing fee.

"My philosophy is not to have housing fees," he said. "Of course if the (county) board and sheriff want to do them, we would. But if you think about most people who come to jail, the majority don't have a lot of money to begin with and they already are paying court fines and costs. Many can't even pay those because of financial difficulty. If we had housing fees, that could tack on between $2,000 and $5,000 to what they owe."

Charging housing fees and continuing to add to a person's hardships can lead to a vicious cycle, Wood said.

"While jails are paid for by taxpayer dollars, and some people believe in charging, we are ultimately here to provide a service to the community," he said. "Would we really be helping a person out by adding more financial burden to them, especially when the majority can't pay it anyway?"

Having worked in other jails before coming to Mecosta County, Wood said places that charged housing fees hardly received any of what was owed. He estimated jails received 2 percent of what they were owed when bills were sent to collections, and that was before paying the fee owed to the collection companies.

"At that point, you really have to weigh if it's worth all the time and effort the county would put in to collect this," he said.

Aside from general housing fees, there are other ways the Osceola and Mecosta County Jails bring in money.

The State of Michigan County Jail Reimbursement Program, what local officials refer to as the "diverted felon program," is another source of revenue for county jails. If an offender has a high enough score on their sentencing guidelines that they could go to prison but the inmate is instead sentenced to jail, the state will pay per day for the stay. There are three tiers the jails can charge, depending on the scores — $40, $55 or $65 per day.

Last year, the Mecosta County Jail brought in about $126,000 from the state for this program, according to Wood. Wayne estimated the Osceola County Jail receives about $25,000 per year from the program, and another $25,000 for housing parole detainees.

When a parolee is placed on a parole detainer and is lodged at a county jail for a possible parole violation, the state can be billed to pay the jail for the parolee's stay.

"So while they are waiting here to see if they will go back to prison, the state pays us $35 per day," Wood said. "Last year, the Mecosta County Jail brought in a little more than $29,000 for parole detainers."

At each jail, a booking fee of $12 is charged each time a person is lodged. Wood estimated the Mecosta County Jail collected between $16,000 and $18,000 in booking fees last year. In Osceola County, $8,958 was collected last year in booking fees, according to Wayne.

Although there aren't housing fees for the standard inmate in Mecosta County, in both Mecosta and Osceola counties, inmates on work release are charged $20 per day to stay at the jails. Other sources of revenue for the jails include phone call charges and commissary items.

Wood estimated the Mecosta County Jail brings in about $10,000 to $15,000 each year in commissary funds. These funds are used to pay for recreational items, such as ping pong tables, along with television and cable bills.

"At our jail, the commissary money pays for that stuff," Wood said. "Those items are not paid for by taxpayer money."

In theory, Wood is in favor of inmates paying back the county to stay at the jail, but logistically, he simply doesn't think it's feasible.

"I agree people should pay their way, but where does the road stop?" he said. "And what is it really worth?"