Library patrons booked into jail for late fees, overdue books

Handcuffed and ankle-shackled, Jacob deLaGarza marched in a single-file line to see the judge.

His crime: two research books and a Bruce Springsteen CD all long overdue at the Victoria Public Library.

Lost or late materials can result in more than just a 10-cent-a-day fine – readers can find themselves behind bars.

“I’ve never been so humiliated in my life,” said deLaGarza, a medic, now 32 and living in Sugar Land. “We went down to the county jail, and I was charged with failure to return property and failure to pay a fine, class C misdemeanors.”

The practice of pressing charges against forgetful book-borrowers has libraries across the country questioning whether the punishment fits the crime.

Just west of Killeen in a town of about 33,000, the Copperas Cove City Council unanimously voted in June to drop the library’s jail policy after a 22-year-old man spent a night in jail because of an unreturned book and the fines that followed.

The city now uses a collections agency to recoup losses.

Ryan Haverlah, Copperas Cove budget director, said the community did not want “to hammer” forgetful borrowers.

“No library wants to put fear into their patrons that they serve where they don’t use the library anymore,” he said. “The library is a place to seek information, not to guard it.”

Kevin Marsh, director of the Copperas Cove Public Library, called the change “a touchy subject.”

Sending people to court “wasn’t doing us as much good as we hoped” and was causing harm, he said.

He still sees theft as not returning something borrowed but said the cost of using the courts versus the revenues that were recovered didn’t even out.

“Every library is going to be different, but for us, we are doing better without referring cases to the court,” he said.

The idea of an alternate resolution has yet to be checked out by Victoria Public Library staff, who continue to hand over book hoarders to the municipal court.

Since July 2011, the library has brought 1,091 cases of lost or overdue materials to the court, according to library records.

None of the money collected from fines or court costs goes to the library. It’s all added to the general fund.

Dayna Williams-Capone, executive director of Victoria Public Library, said staff makes eight separate attempts to contact the borrower by phone and mail and gives opportunities for the materials to be returned. After the three-week checkout period and 70 days to return materials late, the fine is sent to municipal court.

“The sooner you respond to those things we’re sending out to you, the more opportunities we have to work with you,” Williams-Capone said. “If we don’t hear from you, then we follow this process, and once it gets to the end, it’s out of our hands, and you’ll deal with municipal court at that point.”

Sherrie Norred, the Victoria municipal court clerk, said once the library turns over the case, people are given another chance to take care of business before the matter is filed in court.

By law, fines cannot exceed $500, and court costs are $59.

Tax dollars fund the library, including the collections of books that patrons check out.

“That’s taxpayer money that’s an investment in the community, and we want to protect it,” Williams-Capone said.

Larry Neal, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association, said communities need to decide for themselves if pursuing criminal action is appropriate or going overboard.

“I don’t think anybody should be able to take something and not return it without a consequence,” Neal said.

While he recognizes that libraries nationwide consider theft and not returning something borrowed one and the same, his library in Michigan opts to recoup losses with a collections agency.

That approach is more cost-effective and time-efficient, he said.

“Libraries across the country have been facing a lot of budget challenges, and it gets expensive for them to replace what was not returned,” he said. “We’d rather expand our collections than make up for what somebody has not returned.”

His goal is not to badger people for lost or late materials.

“I got into the library profession because I want to provide a great public service, inspire literacy and the joy of reading,” Neal said. “It’s not because I wanted to collect a nickel out of somebody because they didn’t bring something back on time.”

DeLaGarza, the jailed Victoria library patron, said he thinks criminal measures are “excessive.”

“I agree it’s theft, especially if you knowingly don’t pay the fine or keep the book,” he said. At the same time, he said, it’s not worth going to court.

Hundreds of dollars later – including his fine, court costs and other fees – he can laugh at the experience.

“It’s funny because I was in a holding cell, and there was some high-profile drug-dealer with me and another guy for DWI, and here I am, just out of high school, sitting in jail for a library book,” he said.

Even though he’s grown to appreciate the story, he hasn’t checked out a book since.

Jeff Wright, a former librarian at Victoria Public Library, said taking someone to court is a “giant hassle” and a route the library prefers to avoid.

“They can’t just take these losses,” he said. “You’d be amazed at how many people don’t return things and how many times the library has to reorder items that people damage or don’t bring back.”

Court notices “came up quite often” while he worked for the library, he said.

“Just because it’s the library doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply,” he said.

The bottom line is libraries need their books back.

“There’s the small things, and then there’s the large things,” Williams-Capone, said. “We’re not going to throw you in jail for a dollar. There’s no return on investment there. That’s crazy.”


Victoria Advocate
July 19
Related story:

Crossroads libraries pursue criminal action to guard their collections

Published by Melissa Crowe

I’m Melissa: an adventure-seeking, story-telling, internet-loving journalist. I work in Seattle. You can find my work in the Puget Sound Business Journal where I use data to tell stories about the people, businesses and industries driving Washington state’s economy.

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