The state American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday alleging the practice of jailing defendants in Benton County for not paying court fees is unconstitutional.
The lawsuit was filed in Yakima County Superior Court and seeks an order to get Benton County to create a new method for collecting outstanding fees, like restitution or court-appointed attorney costs, which stem from criminal convictions.
Defendants who are delinquent on fees can be sent to Benton County jail or ordered to work crew to pay off their sometimes-hefty bills. A person is credited $50 a day for sitting in jail and $70 a day on work crew.
The decades-old policy disproportionately targets and punishes the poor, creates a revolving door of incarceration and is a violation of the U.S. Constitution, said Vanessa Hernandez, an ACLU lawyer working on the case.
“Benton County operates a modern-day debtor’s prison,” Hernandez said in a news release. “On any given day, scores of indigent persons sit in jail or do manual labor for the county simply because they are too poor to pay the government. The county is trying to squeeze blood from a turnip.”
Hernandez wants to see other alternatives offered in Benton County rather than jail, like a community service option, longer extensions for payments and the waiving of fees altogether, she said.
Tuesday’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of three former Benton County inmates — Jayne Fuentes, Gina Taggart and Reese Groves — who contend the system and the thousands of dollars they owe in court-imposed fees has caused them major suffering.
Taggart and Groves are single parents who were jailed after failing to make payments while they were unemployed, according to the ACLU.
Fuentes was ordered to work crew in 2013 after failing to make payments while she was unemployed, she said. Although she now has a job, she struggles to make her monthly payments and had to borrow money after recently getting sick in order to avoid getting a warrant issued for her arrest.
Paying off her fees leaves no extra money for essentials and she is in constant fear of being jailed, she said.
“I worry every day that I am going to get a warrant if I’m not able to pay my fines that month,” she said by phone Tuesday. “If I do get a warrant, I lose everything I worked for since 2013.”
Benton County District Court is one of the the only courts in Washington that enforces the fee policy, which is allowed under state law.
Franklin County, like many other counties, uses a collection agency to collect fees. Warrants are issued for people who fail to pay restitution and don’t show up for a court date, though jail time is a last resort, Prosecutor Shawn Sant said.
Over the years, the ACLU has investigated the issue on the state and national levels, releasing reports in 2010 and 2014 detailing concerns with the practice. Benton County was a focus of the 2014 state report.
Earlier this year, DeKalb County, Ga., agreed to reform its system after a federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU. The town of Clanton, Ala., also cut its ties with a private, for-profit probation company that threatened to jail people for nonpayment of fines following a lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The ACLU has worked with other counties to change policies and procedures related to legal financial obligations, Hernandez said. However, the organization has seen no willingness from Benton County officials to change the practice.
“While many jurisdictions where we had concerns were responsive and open to taking a look and instituting reform, Benton County was not,” Hernandez told the Herald. “Litigation felt like a necessity.”
Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller told the Herald he has had several conversations with the ACLU about the issue.
“The District Court judges do this without the presence or involvement of a prosecutor; most of the cases are either city of Richland or city of Kennewick,” Miller said.
The practice has been debated on a county level for years, with some officials arguing the practice holds offenders accountable while others have stated it needs to be overhauled.
District court judges could not be reached Tuesday to talk about the lawsuit.
In the past, they contended that many people who are ordered to jail or work crew are repeat offenders with several cases who refuse to pay.
“Fines are exactly how they sound — punishment ... They’re given a fine and if they can’t or won’t pay it, there are alternatives,” said District Court Judge Robert Ingvalson in a 2013 Herald article.
Benton County commissioners met with district court judges in 2013 to discuss the issue, Commissioner Shon Small said. They were told they have little control over the matter, only what the daily rate would be set at for offenders sitting out their fees.
Small told the Herald that the commissioners were not in favor of the practice and worried that it could lead to a lawsuit.
“It was emphasized by all commissioners that we didn’t want district court to continue the process,” Small said. “The main thing was we wanted those guys to find another route, to avoid being in the position we are in today.”
Hernandez and the ACLU assert the driving force behind the practice is the revenue generated by the county.
When inmates decide to burn their debt off by sitting in jail, cities are charged a daily bed rate of nearly $70. The jurisdiction where the crime happened pays the fee.
Benton County District Court took in $9.8 million in revenue in 2014, which includes all misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases and civil infractions, like speeding tickets, according to online case load reports.
District court judges have disagreed in the past that the system is solely in place to bring in money.
“Our function is not generating revenue,” Ingvalson said in 2013. “Our function is to modify behavior, and currently we view this policy as a means of doing that.”