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— City council members voted at the Sept. 14 meeting to impose an additional $10 fee on defendants who are found guilty of misdemeanor crimes and traffic violations in the Benton County West District Court.

The fee will also be charged to defendants who plead guilty or nolo contendere or who forfeit bonds. Currently the City of Decatur charges a $5 fee, but state law allows for cities to charge up to $20. Money the city collects from the fee can only be used to offset prisoner housing costs.

The wording of the new ordinance originally changed the fee from $5 to $20, but council members decided to make the fee a more moderate $10 after city attorney Tom Smith raised concerns about the fee, calling it a "poor man's tax."

In addition to fines, the state charges court costs for each separate charge on one ticket, Smith said.

Smith said someone who was caught speeding and cited for having no insurance, no registration and no seatbelt could have to pay over $450 in court costs.

In contrast, someone who is charged with four serious felonies such as breaking into a house, dealing drugs, pulling a gun and fleeing from the police could have to pay only $150 in court costs.

"It's cheaper to go out and rob a house;

I kid you not," Smith said.

Most of the court costs go to the state and are divided between a long list of organizations, but cities are also allowed to charge fees to offset their prisoner incarceration expenses, he said.

The City of Decatur pays the Benton County Jail $32.50 a day to house inmates who have been arrested for misdemeanors.

The jail houses felony inmates at no cost to the city.

Smith and police chief Terry Luker raised concerns that the jail could start charging more in the future.

City administrative assistant Kim Wilkins said Decatur takes in about $200 a month from its current $5 fee and pays out a consistent $32.50 to the Benton County Jail each month.

"I think we're doing OK on our $5 really," said Luker.

Smith pointed out that if a criminal was arrested on misdemeanor charges and couldn't make bail, they could easily sit in the Benton County Jail for thirty days and rack up more than $900 worth of housing fees.

"My suggestion is we raise it to $10," Mayor Bill Montgomery said.

The council agreed to Montgomery's suggestion, and the ordinance passed with a unanimous vote.

"It's gonna hit the people who can least afford it," alderman Trip Lapham commented.

News, Pages 6 on 09/30/2009

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