Indianapolis Public Library offers program for children to pay off fines

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Thousands of Marion County children can't check out a library book because they owe too much in fines. A new program this summer aims to give them a second chance to get their cards back. It's called Earn and Learn and it's part of the summer reading program.

"It's not a general amnesty. They have to earn their way back into the system and children can do that by reading more books," said Library CEO Jackie Nytes.

Children with outstanding fines will earn points based on the number of books they read and those points will be used to wipe out the fines they owe. It's no small endeavor.

According to the Indianapolis Public Library, roughly 88,000 people under age 18 have library cards. More than 31,000 - nearly one-third of them - owe $5 or more in overdue fines or lost book fees, meaning they can't use their cards.

The total owed the library system is $1.8 million.

Nytes concedes, "That's a lot of money, but some of it's from a long time ago. If you're a 16-year-old student and you lost two books back in sixth grade and you haven't been using your card ever since, because of the charges on your card, quite honestly, a lot of those books are long gone. We'll never get them back. At this point in the game, it's more valuable for the community for that child to be back engaged in using the library so we think it's a worthwhile investment."

She said the children in the program will get to check out a limited number of books with "intense interaction" from library staff reminding them when the books are due.

"It's going to be a very deliberate effort to change their habits about using the library," Nytes said.

Kip Farrar, who visits the library regularly with his five children, was checking out all sorts of books Monday. He said the program was a good idea.

"I think it's important because it gives [kids] a chance to earn back their privileges, where maybe there's no other way of doing it, and what better way to earn your card back than to read?" he said.

Tapacio Ruiz wishes there was a similar program for adults. She said she owes $300 in overdue fines.

"I read a lot due to being a stay-at-home-mom and I'm trying to get my GED and I'm doing the SAT test, but I need books and I can't get them," she said. "So I'd be super happy if I could study at home and not have to come to the library every day."

Nytes said depending on how the Earn and Learn program goes, they may consider a pilot program for adults.