With the city of San Jose's library system facing $6.8 million in unpaid fines across its 23 branches, city leaders say it's time to offer amnesty to people who owe fines or lost their books.
The San Jose Mercury News first reported that figure is roughly five times the amount of unpaid fines logged a few years ago in Chicago, a city with nearly three times San Jose's population.
The library with the most debt is the East San Jose Carnegie branch, according to the library.
The nearly $7 million in fines in San Jose also exceeds unpaid fines at public libraries in Oakland, which has $3 million in outstanding fines, and San Francisco, which stands at $4.6 million, the newspaper reported.
Officials are now talking about reducing fines, which are higher than in other Bay Area library systems – up to 50 cents per day – or giving people amnesty on their fines. San Jose's director of libraries, Jill Bourne, says those stiffer fines may be keeping people away, specifically schoolchildren.
"I think something has to be done because we don't want to be in a situation where any person that lives in San Jose feels they can't go into the library and utilize the resources," Bourne said.
The issue is just in the idea phase, as library leaders brought the proposal to a neighborhood committee last week. There is currently no date set to bring it to the city council, a library spokeswoman said.
When the idea was first introduced in San Jose in 2000, it did not get a recommendation from city staff to move forward.
When Chicago's Public Library system held an amnesty program in 2012 it retrieved 101,301 overdue items, valued at approximately $2 million. More than 40,000 patrons also got their library cards reinstituted.
San Jose library leaders said that they don't consider the fines a revenue loss, per se, but rather an incentive to get people to return their books in a timely fashion. They said they are exploring options other than money to make that happen.
Other options being floated as an alternative to amnesty include allowing people to work off their fines by volunteering or allowing children to work off their fines by reading in the library.
"I think that's the best thing to do," said parent Nathan Zazueta. "Some parents might not make a lot of money, and that's another bill that's going to affect something."
NBC Bay Area's Damian Trujillo and Lisa Fernandez contributed to this report.