Officials with Louisville Metro Corrections, in Louisville, Ky., are reviewing whether to hire a private debt collection agency to pursue booking fees owed to the jail. Two collection agencies submitted bids to Metro Corrections and the department expects to make a decision this week.

Current and former inmates owe Metro Corrections more than $3 million since the department began collecting booking fees in 2003. One man, reportedly with more than 100 arrests for panhandling, owes about $3,000. 

Metro Corrections has collected more than $3.7 million since it began charging booking fees. The money goes into the jail's general fund. 

Inmates who enter jail are charged a $35 booking fee. The jail collects no more than 20% of the booking fees it charges, prompting officials to look at how other jails across the state and country have tried to recover outstanding debts. 

Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton told in Louisville that the idea of hiring a collection agency presents a “moral and ethical dilemma for me” and that there is no guarantee the jail will hire one of the unnamed collection agencies. Bolton acknowledged that many people who owe the jail money are already among the most marginalized in society.

The Kentucky General Assembly began allowing jails in the state to charge booking fees in 2000. According to Bolton, about half of all jails in Kentucky now use a collection agency to pursue booking fees. Some Kentucky jails charge a daily fee along with the booking fee. The Daviess County Detention Center, the first jail to begin collecting booking fees in 2000, charges $20 per day in addition to a $25 booking fee. 

Oldham County Jailer Mike Simpson, who also leads the  Kentucky Jailer's Association, said his jail has made $49,000 since hiring a collection agency two years ago. His jail is a 115-bed facility, much smaller than Metro Corrections, which typically holds about 1,800 inmates.

Simpson said some jails don’t feel right sending debt collectors after booking fees because of the unemployment rate in their counties. But he said his decision to do so came on a recommendation from a state auditor. Simpson felt it was his duty as a public official to recoup as much as possible for voters and taxpayers.

Civil rights advocates argue booking fees are unconstitutional and unfairly target the mentally ill and homeless.

Greg Simms, a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, has reviewed filing a class-action lawsuit against Metro Corrections over booking fees. He believes it’s unconstitutional to take money from people who have not been convicted of a crime. If the jail charges a booking fee, as the law allows, it should be added on to court costs after a person is convicted.

Opponents warn that tracking and collecting unpaid fees from people repeatedly booked into jail may unfairly target the mentally ill and homeless.

Last year, in Denver, the sheriff's department discontinued collecting old debts for booking fees even after collecting several million dollars over the past decade. The law, as the Denver city attorney's office understood it, does not allow the collection of past debts, meaning someone booked into jail can be charged the $30 for that day's processing, but not the unpaid tab that may have accumulated from previous arrests.

After Denver officials stopped collecting for earlier arrest, several other departments in Colorado began reconsidering whether they can charge for previous bookings, according to The Denver Post. 

When an inmate is booked at Louisville Metro Corrections, whatever money they have on them is taken to pay for the $35 fee or, in many cases, the amount owed for previous bookings as well. Once the inmate is released, the jail does not make any attempt to collect booking fees unless he or she is arrested and booked again.

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