Knox County in the clear on jail fees

Matt Hutton

Concerns the county had been failing to reimburse defendants who overpaid their bonds were allayed Wednesday.

The county’s policy that jail staff would not make change for those posting bond was reviewed at Monday’s Jail Committee meeting. Committee Chairman Stephen Johnson, R-District 5, said he had just learned of the procedure Monday and was concerned the county had been keeping the overages and spending the extra money.

For example, if a person posts a bond of $100, the sheriff’s department adds a $15 processing fee, meaning that person must pay $115 to be released from prison. But if that person has only $120, the concern was the county had been keeping the extra $5.

On Monday the committee took action to allow the sheriff to have a petty cash fund at the jail to make change. Johnson explained that he felt doing nothing would be condoning the practice.

Sheriff Dave Clague said he knew of the practice back in September and informed the special auditors, who told him to wait on making any changes until after their investigation was complete. Because it was an ongoing investigation, Clague said he did not discuss the matter with anyone else.

Following Monday’s meeting, Clague, County Treasurer Robin Davis and Circuit Clerk Kelly Cheesman sat down to review records and procedures. Cheesman produced 40 or 50 pages documenting that the defendants had been provided reimbursements for any overpayments.

There might be a few instances in which reimbursements were not issued, for example some people who were arrested on a Knox County bond in another county. But that number is probably closer to three per year than the original fear of 100 per month over the course of more than a decade.

“We’re very relieved that through the services of Kelly, we’re looking at approximately 3 per year instead of the $60,000 or $70,000 it could have been,” Clague said.

Davis said even in the few cases where reimbursements had not been issued, the extra money had been going into the fines and fees fund that remained separate from the county’s general fund, which was one of the jail committee’s concerns on Monday.

“It hasn’t been going into the general fund or the county coffers,” she said, adding even at the “wildest calculations” the maximum amount of reimbursements the county would need to make would be about $2,000. She said the county could move to close those accounts after the completion of the special audit.

There won’t be a petty cash fund but Clague said he would direct his staff to better explain the exact change policy. However, in order to create a better tracking system, the procedure has been altered slightly. Every morning court security will pick up the bond and fees from the courthouse, deliver them to the circuit clerk, who will then pass any overages to the treasurer. The defendant who overpaid can get a receipt from the circuit clerk and, after 24 hours, receive a reimbursement from the treasurer’s office.

“Under the previous policy, the treasurer did not have any knowledge of any bond overpayments because those records did not go to that office, Davis said.”

Finance Committee Chairman Wayne Saline, R-District 4, said this process was preferable to the petty cash fund because it left a clear paper trail. County Board Chairman Allen Pickrel, R-District 1, said the one thing he knows for sure will come from the special audit of the sheriff’s department and state’s attorney office are recommendations for improving record keeping that can be applied to the entire county.

Davis added that she appreciated sitting down and discussing the situation with Cheesman and Clague and said the incident showed that communication between the departments was improving for the good of the county.

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