Starting in the fall, Volusia County will treat its lockup like a hotel: Guests at the county jail will be charged for their lodging, food and laundry.
Following the lead of at least 50 other counties in Florida, Volusia will seek to recover some of the expenses of keeping people behind bars while they await trial or serve sentences.
“We’re feeding them every day. We’re taking care of them every day,” Dr. Mark Flowers, the county’s director of the Corrections Department, told the County Council Feb. 15.
Volusia County already bills inmates for medical-care copays. The new fees will likely affect a larger group of inmates.
Under Florida law, Flowers explained, counties may assess and collect fees for booking people into the jail and/or for their daily occupancy of a cell. The fees, he said, “may be withdrawn from an inmate’s cash fund.”
He gave an example: “If inmate Flowers gets money from his family, we would be able to go in and collect it.”
The County Council debated and subsequently opted to charge a $30 “booking fee,” for initial processing and admission to jail.
Flowers referred to the booking fee as a “one-time” charge, but the fee may be charged “one time” for each charge.
For example, if a suspect is arrested for shoplifting and brought to jail, the individual may be charged $30 for the entry and incarceration. If, after serving time for the charge, the person goes out and is arrested for allegedly burglarizing two homes, the individual may be held responsible for another $30 “one-time” booking charge on the new charges.
Also, for each day a person stays in jail — before being released on bond, or released by a judge — the arrestee may be billed a “subsistence fee” of $5.
Flowers noted that the state statute authorizing counties to charge the jail fees does not define “subsistence,” but he referred to it as “the cost associated with feeding, clothing and sanitary care of inmates.”
Flowers said the county pays an average of $3.09 per day to feed a prisoner.
Flowers conceded that the county will not recover the new fees from everyone held behind bars. He estimated the actual collection rate may be about 35 percent, based on the experience of other counties.
The Florida law that allows counties to bill inmates for their time in jail requires that the inmate’s “financial status” be taken into account “for the purpose of paying from their income and assets all or a fair portion of their daily subsistence costs.”
In addition, prisoners who work while in jail are exempt from the fees.
Some inmates are indigent and have nothing to pay. Others have sources of income, such as disability payments, that the county may not touch because such income is exempt under federal or state law.
A summary of the jail-fees issue given to the County Council mentions the possibility of non-collection.
“Debt for non-payment of the fees may accrue for up to three years, at which time it would be forgiven,” the memo reads.
There are many who can afford to pay for their upkeep, as County Council Member Ben Johnson — the county’s former sheriff — noted.
“Money is money,” Johnson said. “People in jail are getting coronavirus money. Am I correct?”
“You’re correct,” Flowers replied.
Flowers later told The Beacon he knows of inmates who received the federal stimulus checks mailed to taxpayers in 2020 and 2021. The county, he said, may and should go after those payouts to recoup the costs of keeping the recipients locked up.
Statistics compiled by the county’s Corrections Department show there were 18,936 inmate admissions during the 2020-21 fiscal year. Based on that number, at the projected 35-percent collection rate, the $30 booking fee would yield approximately $195,000 annually.
Based on the 578,312 inmate-bed days logged by the Corrections Department during the same period, by assessing a $5 daily subsistence fee, the county could reap $1.01 million per year, according to the data presented to the council.
The average daily count of prisoners in the jail is about 1,460, Flowers said.
The council voted 6-1 in favor of charging the jail fees. Council Member Barb Girtman dissented. She favored a subsistence fee of $1.50 per day.
Flowers addressed the lone dissenter to the measure, arguing the higher fee was necessary.
“I’m going to be honest with you, Miss Girtman,” Flowers said. “There are a few that are indigent, but they don’t hesitate to get their honey bun funds from their mamas and their grandmas and their five and six girlfriends.”
The jail fees go into effect Oct. 1. County Attorney Mike Dyer said the decision to impose the charges is an administrative action, so an ordinance is not required.
On a related note, the County Council, upon Flowers’ recommendation, also agreed to implement a counterclaim provision in state law. That would allow the county to seek payments of $50 per day from inmates who win lawsuits filed during the time the inmates were in jail, to offset some of the expenses of keeping them locked up.
The county is now the target of more than a dozen lawsuits filed by current and former inmates. Flowers highlighted one civil action from an inmate who is suing because the jail serves honey buns, and the sweet treats are making him fat.
The county’s Corrections Department has a budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year totaling $61.8 million. The agency has 356 full-time employees.