Then, when he was finally released, his jailers sent him a bill: He owed more than $4,000 for his time in custody.
Kentucky is one of at least 43 states that allow jails to charge inmates for their food and housing—even if the inmate is found innocent or their case is dismissed, those facilities say. Now 51, Jones found himself in a legalistic nightmare after a shoddy investigation saw him wrongly accused of downloading child pornography. Although a forensic examination of his devices found no evidence of the crime, police let Jones languish for more than a year while the fees piled up.
Now Jones is going on the offensive, arguing before the Kentucky Supreme Court this week to strike down the policy of charging pretrial inmates for their time in jail, a practice that civil-liberties advocates have decried across the country in recent years.
The bill “was a big surprise to him,” Jones’ attorney, Gregory Belzley told The Daily Beast. “In addition to the bill, over that 14-month period, he had money occasionally deposited into his inmate account. There were monies confiscated from that to offset the cost of his confinement.”
A 2000 law allows Kentucky jails to bill inmates for their detention. In the fiscal year 2019, the state’s jails took in more than $24 million from inmates, according to an analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice, a research nonprofit focused on criminal justice issues.
The policy is controversial, and in Jones’ case, misapplied, Belzley argued. The law’s current language states that “a prisoner in a county jail shall be required by the sentencing court to reimburse the county for expenses incurred by reason of the prisoner’s confinement.”
But Jones was never sentenced, or even tried in court. “An innocent person who is not being sentenced, who doesn’t get sentenced, has no reimbursement obligation,” Belzley argued.
Jeffrey Mando, an attorney for Clark County, where Jones was locked up, said the jail had not broken any laws. “What we’re here about is, has the jail violated any constitutional provision? Has jail violated the statute? Has the jail violated any precedent that would provide them with the remedy? Now, as harsh as that may sound, that’s the law,” Mando argued in court this week.
But Jones’ jail time was a fluke of justice in the first place. A factory worker in Winchester, Kentucky, he appeared on law enforcement’s radar in 2013 after they received a tip that a child pornography video had been downloaded using an IP address associated with his internet router late one night. Jones’ work schedule meant he went to bed at 8 p.m., he claimed in court, and a search warrant for his electronics noted that he was not a suspect in the download. Still, when cops knocked on his door, Jones waived his Miranda rights and told them that while he had not downloaded the video, he was the only person who lived in his apartment. He did not believe anyone else had his WiFi password, he said.
That did not mean Jones was the only person with access to the router, his lawyers and a forensic analyst later argued. Jones lived in an apartment complex and kept his WiFi password taped on the side of his router. Belzley also noted that guides to hacking routers like Jones’ are easily available online, with instructions on how to use administrator settings to bypass passwords.
But when Jones told officers that he thought he was the only person with access to the device, they arrested him and seized his electronics. Two months into his jail stay, a police investigation of his devices found no trace of illegal content—just a downloaded song from a file-sharing program that an arresting officer implied had been used for downloading exploitative material.
They had no evidence against Jones. Rather than inform his attorneys, however, the prosecution allegedly kept the investigation to themselves and let Jones remain in jail, where he was unable to pay the $15,000 that would let him walk free until his trial. (Jones is currently suing for malicious prosecution.)
“They didn’t tell anybody that the Lexington police had found nothing,” Belzley said. “The charging detective even admitted to me that he knew two months after David had been arrested that they had no evidence to support the charge. And they did nothing to get David out of jail. He sat there for 12 more months.”
And in Kentucky, every day in jail contributed to a growing bill.
Although county jails charge differently across the state, they’re legally allowed to collect “user fees,” including costs for food and board. Supporters of those fees say they help offset the cost of incarceration, which has grown alongside the state’s jailed population. From 2007 to 2019, Kentucky’s jail populations increased 465 percent, according to analysis from the Vera Institute. During that same time period, jail spending increased 44 percent in suburban counties like Clark County, where Jones was incarcerated.
But critics argue the fees do little but keep the jail population—disproportionately people too poor to pay bail—in a spiral of poverty. In 2019, those “user fees” amounted to more than $24 million, a massive sum for incarcerated Kentuckians, but less than 5 percent of the state’s jail budget.
Belzley argues that pre-trial inmates have been charged these fees for years because the law “exists in a legislative black hole.” Although he says the sentencing courts are supposed to dictate how inmates pay, “the judges don’t enter the orders and they just leave it to the jails. And the jails have developed a longstanding practice of cleaning out people. Anybody that’s brought to the jail, whether they’re innocent or not.”
After 14 months, Jones’ case was finally dismissed. But he was left holding a $4,000 bill for his jail time, with no easy way to pay it back. “I lost my car, lost my home, ruined my credit,” Jones said in 2015 when his charges were dropped.
After his release, he was too afraid to go into town, or even to own a computer, he said at the time.
“I do not have internet no more because I’m afraid this will happen again to me. I don’t own a computer because I’m scared one day that I might be locked up again.”