Benton County Sheriff's Office sends former inmates bills for jail stay

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 3, 2013 

The Benton County Sheriff's Office says it's owed more than $1 million by hundreds of former jail inmates for costs they amassed while behind bars.

And it's attempting to collect.

The department sent out almost 1,800 bills in a mass mailing in mid-January. The action prompted some surprise and complaints from recipients, but it's not unprecedented.

The department mailed out another large batch of statements a few years back and in recent years regularly has sent bills to inmates upon their release, said Julie Thompson of the sheriff's office, who's helping deal with the outstanding debt.

The practice is a way to recoup money shelled out by the county, which "in turn is a benefit to the county taxpayers," she said. "It actually reduces the cost (of the jail) and lowers the bed day-rate to the local municipalities" that send offenders there.

As of Tuesday, 65 payments totaling about $1,260 had been received, Thompson said.

The total debt stands at about $1.4 million. More than $700,000 was racked up from 2007 through the end of last year, Thompson said. She added that officials are reviewing state law to determine whether some of the older debt should be written off.

The bills seek reimbursement for money the county spent on things such as nurse visits, outside doctor visits, prescription costs and property damage, she said. The jail hasn't assessed booking fees in several years, but in some of the older cases those could be included, Thompson said.

Most of the statements are itemized, although in some cases recipients need to inquire for more detail about their charges, she said.

Franklin County also seeks reimbursement from inmates, though not in the same way. It attempts to collect when inmates come back through the system, said Lori Schmidt, an accounting clerk.

Inmates generally are billed only for nurse visits and property damage, she said.

Schmidt said few inmates at the jail -- which is much smaller than Benton County's -- build up significant charges, and she estimated the total amount outstanding is a few thousand dollars.

Thompson said her department met with a collections agency that contracts with two other county offices and hopes to have a contract with them in place in a couple months.

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