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Lake County Sheriff’s Office unlawfully billed inmates for the costs of locking them up, grand jury says

A rare public report by a grand jury shows how dysfunction in the Colorado mountain community led to over a dozen inmates being wrongly billed thousands of dollars.

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Jail officials at the Lake County Sheriff’s Office unlawfully billed inmates more than $16,000 for the costs of housing and feeding them without first obtaining court approval, according to a scathing — and rare — public report from a Colorado grand jury revealing a host of deeper problems that existed within the department before leadership changes earlier this year.

The two largest bills were charged to inmates serving time for traffic offenses.

The report found that senior sheriff’s officials didn’t understand the law that allows jails to seek compensation from inmates, and they dismissed concerns raised by a deputy that their practices weren’t in line with the rules. But the grand jury’s findings didn’t stop there. Among its other conclusions:

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  • The undersheriff who oversaw the program — and who was appointed to the position following the firing and subsequent criminal conviction of the previous undersheriff for sexual misconduct — felt “relatively unprepared” to take on the leadership role.
  • The deputy responsible for the county’s jail operations was not a state-certified peace officer and had no law enforcement experience when he was appointed to be a deputy in 2013. He had previously worked as a firefighter, and his training for working in a jail consisted of on-the-job learning and a one-week course.
  • The sheriff’s office had no formal system for inmates to file grievances. “In general, (policies) for jail operations were lacking and deputies working at the jail were left to use their best judgment when making decisions,” the report states.
  • A deputy named Sam Reynolds, who began investigating the unlawful billing after an inmate complaint, was discouraged from digging into it more deeply. When former sheriff Rodney Fenske, during whose tenure the billing occurred, left office earlier this year, he expressed qualms to his successor about Reynolds’ performance, “as opposed to a more accurate description that Deputy Reynolds’ concerns were a genuine issue regarding whether the outgoing sheriff’s jail practices were consistent with Colorado law,” according to the report.
  • Under Fenske, the sheriff’s office had a culture that “deputies who complained or raised ‘issues’ could suffer repercussions. There was a significant divide between the managers including the sheriff, undersheriff, and sergeants from the line deputies that inhibited open discussion of issues or concerns such as those being raised by Deputy Reynolds,” the report states.

Ultimately, the grand jury decided not to issue criminal indictments. But, in an unusual step, it released a report under a provision in state law that allows normally secret grand jury findings to be made public when the case involves abuses of authority of other government “misfeasance.”

“Inmates are a vulnerable population and need to be well protected by those to whom their care is entrusted,” the grand jury report states. “Because of that vulnerability, extreme caution must be exercised to protect their property, including funds held on their jail accounts, as well as their health and safety.”

Colorado law allows county sheriffs to bill inmates for the “costs of care” associated with a jail sentence, such as housing and meals, but only after two things happen. First, the inmate has to be convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail. And, second, a judge has to sign off on an order for that inmate to be billed.

According to the grand jury’s report, the former undersheriff, William Kirkland, decided in January of last year to begin billing inmates after attending a training session. He spoke with a Lake County judge to set up a process for how judicial orders for cost-of-care billing would be handled. But, according to the report, he apparently believed this was all that needed to be done to start charging inmates.

“Undersheriff Kirkland stated he was not aware that each inmate needed a separate cost of care Order from the Court,” the grand jury wrote.

The sheriff’s office charged inmates $15 a day for the costs of their incarceration starting on the second day of their sentence, according to the grand jury report. The grand jury identified 14 inmates who were wrongfully charged in 2018 in amounts ranging from a little over $100 to into the thousands of dollars. The two inmates charged the most — at $6,120 and $4,560, respectively — were both locked up for traffic violations, according to the report.

Taken together, the 14 inmates were charged $16,368.56, according to the report. Of that, sheriff’s officials had collected $2,202.13 from the inmates.

The grand jury, though, didn’t conduct a full examination of all inmates’ accounts, meaning it is possible more were billed without a court order. The grand jury’s report recommends that county officials should do a complete accounting of inmate accounts and refund any money collected unlawfully.

“Cutting corners is not an option when it comes to the rights of persons either accused or convicted of a crime,” Bruce Brown, the district attorney for the 5th Judicial District, said in a statement.

The billing stopped when Fenske was replaced this year as sheriff by Amy Reyes, who beat out five other candidates to win the position. Only weeks after taking office, she brought Reynolds’ concerns about the billing practices to the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which covers Lake and three other mountain counties. The office referred the matter to the district’s grand jury in February.

Fenske, Kirkland and Buerke are no longer with the department, according to the grand jury report. What’s more, the jail no longer holds inmates overnight. Reyes closed it this spring, citing safety concerns. The county is now trying to build a new one. Lake County inmates are currently being held in Park and Summit counties, according to the Leadville Herald Democrat, which first reported news of the jail’s closure.

Still, Brown, the district attorney, said it is important for the grand jury’s findings to come to light. And he said he may take more cases to a grand jury when there is the possibility of releasing public reports if criminal charges are not warranted.

“They serve a valuable role,” he said in an interview. “And government, like any business, is really complicated. I think too often there are issues that don’t get exposed. So I think the grand jury is a great vehicle to explore these issues as they arise.”