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Washington county jails people who can’t pay court fines, ACLU says

Attorneys behind lawsuit charges that Benton County operates ‘modern-day debtors’ prison’

The American Civil Liberties Union sued a county in Washington state Tuesday, accusing it of sending people to jail or forcing them onto work crews if they fail to pay their court fines — a practice that makes the poor poorer and amounts to a "modern-day debtors' prison," the organization said.

The group's state chapter has long alleged that the Benton County District Court penalizes defendants without investigating whether they can afford to pay their fines.

“Benton County is operating a well-oiled machine specifically designed to wring money out of poor people for the county’s financial benefit — and if that means people have to sit in jail or do manual labor, so be it,” ACLU Washington chapter legal director Emily Chiang said. 

Vanessa Hernandez, another ACLU attorney, told local news site tri-cityhearld.com that “Benton County operates a modern-day debtors’ prison” and that the practice of requiring manual labor to pay off court debt is “trying to squeeze blood from a turnip.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring Benton County to create a constitutional system to collect fines.

The local ACLU chapter detailed the practice in a report last year that drew objections from the court's judges, one of whom argued that defendants have an opportunity to speak up at sentencing if they can't afford the fines.

"The misnomer is that we're imposing jail time without any due process rights," Judge Joseph M. Burrowes told The Associated Press at the time. "We are following the law. We are doing what is just and fair."

The court did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday, but Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said he told judges and county commissioners two years ago that he does not agree with the practice.

"The judges do it, and there's not even a prosecutor in the courtroom," he said Tuesday.

The lawsuit, which was filed as class action in Yakima County Superior Court, is part of a long national campaign by the ACLU to combat the effect of court fines on poor defendants. In 2010, the organization published a report that examined the way courts impose fines in Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana and Washington state, noting that the fines can often compound with interest or late fees, contributing to the impoverishment of some defendants.

The failure to pay often results in further arrests and further fines, and the results have disproportionally incarcerated minority defendants, opponents say. While courts can jail people for willfully refusing to pay, they are required to ensure that people are able to pay.

Earlier this year, DeKalb County, Georgia, agreed to reform its system after the ACLU brought a federal lawsuit. Following a lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the town of Clanton, Alabama, also cut its ties with a private, for-profit probation company that threatened to jail people for nonpayment of fines.

Nusrat Choudhury, a staff attorney with the national ACLU's Racial Justice Project, said that the practice has become an alarming trend since the recession, when fines hit people especially hard and when some jurisdictions may have started becoming more aggressive in collecting them.

The systems "operate somewhat differently in different places, but the bottom line is the same: There are people being jailed because they are poor," she said.

In south-central Washington's Benton County, defendants often represented by public defenders have little opportunity to explain why they are unable to pay, the ACLU's lawsuit said. In part that's because public defenders are poorly funded and trained, depriving defendants of their right to meaningful assistance of counsel, the lawsuit said.

The ACLU says the court system violated the U.S. and state constitutions, which prohibit incarcerating someone for not paying court-imposed fines, fees and costs without a meaningful hearing and consideration of alternatives to jail.

Defendants were credited $80 toward their fines for each day they served on a work crew, and $50 for each day in jail. Typically more than one-quarter of the people in the county jail are "sitting out" their fines on any given day, according to a review of jail rosters.

All three Benton County commissioners oppose the practice.

"We told them a year and a half ago they were going to get sued," Commissioner James Beaver said of the judges. "They politely told me I don't have statutory authority to tell them what to do."

Beaver, a former mayor of Kennewick, said that when judges order someone to jail over fines, the facility bills whichever city arrested the defendant. That means the cost of jailing them is borne by the cities rather than the county, he said.

When asked why the judges keep sending people to jail for not paying fines, Beaver said, "It's all about the money."

The named plaintiffs in the ACLU suit are Jayne Fuentes, Gina Taggart, and Reese Groves, all of whom have been jailed or forced into manual labor because they couldn't pay fines related to misdemeanor theft or other convictions. All three still owe thousands of dollars and fear they could be jailed in the future, the lawsuit said.

“I’m constantly afraid that if I get sick or miss a payment for reasons beyond my control, I’ll go to jail,” Fuentes said in an ACLU press release.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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