Educational, entertaining and 100 percent free of charge, library books are among society’s most valuable cultural capital. But are those tomes worth going to jail? That’s a question that residents of Athens-Limestone Public Library in Athens, Alabama, will need to consider now that their local public library plans to enforce a city ordinance that could bring stiff fines or even jail time to scofflaws.
As Adam Smith reports for The News Courier due to nearly $200,000 worth of overdue materials, library officials plan to start enforcing an Athens city ordinance that slaps those who fail to return materials a $100 fine, a 30-day jail sentence or both. If the penalty seems harsh, it also seems worth it to library officials. As Smith reported earlier this year, the library requested a larger funding request from the city for the 2016/2017 fiscal year than the year before, citing underfunding and stating that the library is understaffed. In previous years, the library has cobbled together its funding from state aid, local government income and federal funds, but in 2014 its operating income was just over $6 per capita.
Library fines provide a vital source of revenue to many libraries, but as SmartNews reported earlier this year, many library systems are turning to amnesty programs instead of collections or increased late fees in an effort to retain patrons. Libraries sometimes use collections agencies to force patrons to return books or pay up, but the practice has been decried as unfair and overly punitive. (Smith reports that the Athens-Limestone Public Library refers overdue patrons to Unique Management Services, a library materials collection service that states it specializes in the “Gentle Nudge Process.” Nonetheless, Unique is a collection agency.)
If anyone is jailed under the ordinance, they won’t be the only ones: Earlier this year, a couple from Michigan was arraigned on larceny charges for failing to return a Dr. Seuss book for their son. Despite claiming inability to pay, they were slapped with diversion fees and charged with a criminal misdemeanor. However, the charges were ultimately dropped after they paid fees and the replacement cost of the overdue book.
The Department of Justice instructed states earlier this year that it is unconstitutional to jail poor people because they cannot afford to pay fines, but it’s unclear if the Athens ordinance violates that directive. As Will Robinson-Smith reports for WAAY, the Athens police have only arrested a few violators in the past, and it appears that only extreme cases will be slapped with a jail sentence. Like it or not, the stakes for returning that book in Athens just got a little higher.