Herald JournalHerald Journal, March 28, 2005

Pay For Stay jail program a big success

By John Holler
Wright County Correspondent

A little more than two years ago, the Wright County Board of Commissioners approved a proposal from the sheriff’s department to institute a Pay for Stay program at the Wright County Jail.

In short, the program would bill prisoners $20 for each day they spent in jail. It was a program even Sheriff Gary Miller was skeptical of seeing positive results.What's in it for YOU?

“This is a new program that has been tried elsewhere, but has never really had much, if any, success,” Miller said. “We didn’t see that had that much to lose, but we didn’t really expect to have that much to gain, either.”

The county contracted with a private billing company to attempt to get payment. Under the agreement, the firm would be paid only a percentage of money collected – if nothing was collected, it wouldn’t be paid. When the program started, a revenue projection of $3,000 was put into the line-item budget for the program. When it brought in $21,500, heads began to turn.

“It was obviously a surprise,” Miller said. “We didn’t put much in the budget because we didn’t know if we would bring anything in. When we saw how well the program was working here, it made me think we might have a better class of prisoner here in Wright County.”

The success continued to grow unabated in 2004. After seeing the initial success of the program, $30,000 was budgeted for revenue from the program last year. What happened? Expectations were once again shattered – as the program brought in $110,207 in revenue. While other counties have struggled to make their programs simply offset the costs of implementing it, Wright County has succeeded beyond even the most optimistic projections.

“I think our program is more successful because we’re turning cases over to (the billing company) so fast,” Jail Administrator Gary Torfin said. “We didn’t have a lot of resources to spend on this, so our feeling was that the quicker we turned the cases over, the better chances we would have of collecting something.”

While some counties sit on their own pay to stay program for a month or more in order to try to collect the entire amount themselves without using an outside contractor, Wright County offers a 10 percent discount if paid in the first seven days after release. After that, it goes to the billing company. If that fails, it goes into a collection agency and, if needed, back into court.

Miller, Torfin and others have been asked how the county can expect prisoners to pay for staying in the jail? After all, it isn’t a hotel they’re staying at. Few if any actually want to be there. But Torfin said it isn’t too much different than other county departments that charge for use of their facilities.

“It’s simply a fee for service,” Torfin said. “Say, for example, you want to go cross country skiing or camping at county campground. You pay taxes to have those trails and campgrounds built, but there is also a user fee to use them. This is a different situation, but the principle is the same.”

The program shows no signs of turning. The 2005 budget amount for projected revenue is $70,000 and, if the past track record is any indication, that figure should once again be greatly exceeded.

“It just goes to show that sometimes a good idea done in the right way can yield a big success,” Miller said. “The people that have worked to get this program off the ground should be commended. I was skeptical whether this program would work or not, but I was proved wrong for having my doubts. It hasn’t worked a lot of places and those that it has, it hasn’t been as successful as it has been here. I’m not exactly sure why we’re the exception, but it’s a good exception to be.”

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