Benton County time-for-fines program criticized

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldNovember 18, 2013 

Commissioner Meeting

Benton County District Court Judge Joseph M. Burrowes, left seated, addresses Benton County commissioners Monday on the topic of converting fines and court costs to work crew or jail time. Commissioners Jim Beaver, lower right counter clockwise, Shon Small and Jerome Delvin heard from court, law officials and the public during a commissioner meeting at the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick.

PAUL T. ERICKSON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Prosecutor Andy Miller left no doubt Monday he doesn't support Benton County District Court's longstanding policy of locking up criminals to wipe out their unpaid fines and court costs.

"I take the position that the current practice of converting the fines to jail ... should be either eliminated or dramatically changed," Miller told Benton County commissioners. "I think that the ordering of jail time for somebody who deserves it is very appropriate ... but how the (time-for-fines program) is working, I just don't think it's achieving what I think we need to achieve."

Miller was one of several top law enforcers who one by one took a seat before the county board Monday and suggested modifying the policy. They all said they must strike a balance between holding a criminal accountable and the cost to the public, but agreed there are no clear answers.

Almost 40 people attended the two-hour meeting in the Benton County Justice Center.

Commissioner Jim Beaver said the meeting was scheduled after an "interesting conversation" between Miller and District Court Judge Robert Ingvalson in front of the board last month.

He pointed out that the commission only has the authority to set the rate for credit. Currently, delinquents can burn off their debt at $70 a day if they're serving on a work crew and $50 a day if they're just sitting in jail.

Otherwise, the county board doesn't have the power to tell judges what they should do in their courtrooms, Beaver said.

He said the discussion really needs to be with prosecutors, city officials and Benton County District Court judges to see if they can reach their own resolution, but added that the board is there to "roll up our sleeves" and help get through it.

"I think we have a problem, and so with that said we just need to get together and see if we can't fix the problem," Beaver said.

Beaver moved to review the issue at another meeting. He wanted that done within a month, but agreed to push it out to January at Commissioner Jerome Delvin's recommendation.

That gives county staff a couple of months to work with criminal justice officials and break down the numbers on revenue generated in fines, the costs of housing people and how it impacts the budget.

Delvin clarified that the issue is with people who are serving out their fines at a daily bed rate of $68.59 in the Benton County jail. Some career criminals are being locked up for several months or even a year because they're delinquent on multiple fines, and the jurisdiction that prosecuted each case must cover the jail tab.

Delvin believes they all want to keep the work crew part of the fines policy, but added that he's not going to tell the judges how to run their court, he said.

Judge Joe Burrowes, the court's presiding judge, said he and his colleagues weren't at the meeting to advocate for or against the policy. It is up to the legislative body to allow the court to do the time-for-fines program, and the judges will utilize the mechanism if it continues to be in place, he said.

Judge Ingvalson later raised his hand and interrupted the board, saying "I want to make it real clear -- you do nothing, we stay where we are. This is our practice. This is how we're going to proceed."

Benton County District Court is believed to be one of only two courts in Washington to take advantage of a state law allowing criminals convicted of misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors to serve out their unpaid legal financial obligations in exchange for credit.

Most courts just turn the nonpayers over to collection agencies.

District Court's five judges contend the practice is an effective deterrent for people who drag their feet on paying. A person is given at least three chances to explain their situation to a judge, and may even have their monthly amount adjusted, before being told it's time to do work crew or sit in jail.

City and county officials have said they're not even sure what the policy is costing them each year.

Dee Willis, a chaplain at the jail and Richland resident, has studied the issue for three years by accruing data on jail inmates, particularly those incarcerated for failing to comply with court orders.

On average, 112 inmates per day are behind bars to sit out fines, Willis said. That works out to $2.8 million total a year for Benton County, Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser to keep these people locked up instead of forcing them to pay with another alternative. His study shows that Kennewick has the largest bill at $1,066,000, with Benton County not far behind at $1,037,000.

Some officials Monday questioned if Willis' numbers are a true reflection of the costs, and pointed out that eliminating the jail portion of the program altogether won't necessarily bring a savings of $2.8 million because the jail still has certain operating costs.

Sheriff Steve Keane said it is a difficult position for him to be in when he must hold people accountable, but also run an efficient jail as costs continue to go up. He agreed with Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg and Kennewick City Attorney Lisa Beaton that it may be good to set a cap on the number of jail days, but asked that they not cut the work crew part because it benefits the community.

Richland City Attorney Heather Kintzley and West Richland Police Chief Brian McElroy and City Attorney Bronson Brown also addressed the commissioners.

Judge Katy Butler is in favor of work crew as the first option, but said just this past week she received a foot-high stack of documents for people who were sentenced to it but didn't show. Now they will be ordered to sit out the time in jail, she said.

"I know you guys will do what is best for the county," Judge Terry Tanner said before returning to his courtroom for a trial. "We're separated, but we're all under the Benton County umbrella so we're here to do what is best for the county and the people who elect us."

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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