Could You Go To Jail For Overdue Library Books?

If you're prone to forgetting your library due dates, turns out you might want to keep better track of them. A Michigan couple nearly went to jail for overdue library books, including over one lost Dr. Seuss book they never paid to replace. And even though they will not find themselves behind bars, it turns out, facing legal troubles over library fines isn't as uncommon as you'd think.

Cathy and Melvin Duren of Tecumseh, Michigan were charged last month with failure to return rental property, a criminal misdemeanor, after failing to return either the novel The Rome Prophecy, borrowed in April of 2015, and the Dr. Seuss book A Hatful of Seuss, borrowed in July 2014 and which the family had also lost. The couple hadn't paid the library fines for either book. The charges leveled against them carried a maximum sentence of a $500 fine and 93 days in jail.

Yes, that's right, actual jail for failure to return library books. I am all for people treating libraries with respect, but jail seems a tad harsh.

In this case, however, there was a happy resolution. The couple agreed to pay the fines — which were significantly less than $500 — and the charges were dropped.

As far as the resolution of the case, it is always pleasing when a charge is dismissed so I am very pleased with the outcome, and so are the Durens,” defense attorney Shane Hilyard said in an email.

The prosecution agreed. “I’m happy with the resolution of that case because the library was made whole,” said Lenawee County Prosecutor Burke Castleberry. “We had acceptance of responsibility by them and a complete restitution to the library.”

So nice when everything works out, isn't it?

Interestingly, though, this sort of thing isn't as unusual as it might seem. With libraries facing budget cuts, going after patrons who don't return books through the courts has become more common. There are numerous examples of people who have been charged and convicted of crimes because of overdue library books. And with libraries continuing to face budget shortfalls — meaning they need to make money anywhere they can and can't afford to replace lost of stole books, it's unlikely that will change.

Which is unfortunate, given that the people most likely to be unable to pay fines and therefore risk legal action are precisely the people who need library services most and who can least afford legal trouble — namely low income people. And messing up people's lives over library fines is a stark contrast to a library's usual mission of community enrichment.

Of course, letting libraries continue to hemorrhage money until they can no longer provide services is not really a solution, either. Really, the best solution would be for cities to take the money they spend having to arrest and try people with overdue fines and pour that into library budgets so that they don't have to be so aggressive about rule breakers. Everybody wins.

And in the meantime, return your library books!