Crime

Benton County may shut doors on ‘debtors prison’

The Benton County commissioners voted Wednesday to eliminate credit given to people sentenced to jail for unpaid fees.
The Benton County commissioners voted Wednesday to eliminate credit given to people sentenced to jail for unpaid fees. Tri-City Herald

Benton County’s practice of jailing defendants for unpaid court fees appears to be ending.

County commissioners voted at a special meeting Wednesday to rescind the credit given to people sentenced to jail and work crews to pay outstanding fees. Judges from Benton County District Court agreed not to incarcerate anyone for the purpose of collecting fees.

“By resolution, the regulation does not exist because there is no day rate set,” Presiding Judge Katy Butler told the Herald.

Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller and city prosecutors had requested the change, Miller said.

“I think the commissioners did a good thing today,” Miller said.

Benton County had been one of the few courts in the state to incarcerate people for failing to pay fees, which can total thousands of dollars, a practice some call a “debtors’ prison.” Other counties send debts to collection agencies.

We think it is a very positive step forward toward fixing what has been a broken system.

ACLU spokesman Doug Honig

A lawsuit filed by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union remains in place. The group claims throwing people in jail or putting them on work crews is unconstitutional. The lawsuit, filed in Yakima County Superior Court, asks Benton County to make significant changes to its system.

The ACLU contends the system disproportionately targets the poor.

Wednesday, ACLU spokesman Doug Honig praised the commission’s vote, but said work needs to be done.

“We think it is a very positive step forward toward fixing what has been a broken system,” he said.

The ACLU would like to see the release of several people still in the county jail for failing to pay their legal financial obligations and rescinded warrants for the arrest of others with outstanding obligations, Honig said.

“People shouldn’t be arrested simply because they can’t afford to pay their (legal financial obligations),” he said.

Public defenders also should be trained to better deal with people who have debts imposed by courts, Honig said.

They, along with judges and prosecutors, should be updated on the current state of the law, including the state Supreme Court’s March 2015 decision requiring judges to ask about a defendant’s ability to pay legal financial obligations and not impose them if they can’t be paid.

“The defense attorneys have to be trained so they can be vigorous advocates for their clients,” he said.

District Court judges agreed to honor the commissioners’ decision, but do not agree with it, Butler said.

“Statutorily and by case law, when people have willfully failed to pay their fines, they’re allowed to be required to sit them out,” she said. “I think work crews are a very effective and appropriate way to hold criminals accountable. I think that people want us to hold criminals accountable.”

Post-conviction bills include fines, restitution, court-appointed attorney costs and other fees. A person is credited with $50 for spending a day in jail and $70 for a day on the work crew.

Butler argues that incarceration helps defendants because fines increase by 40 percent if a debt is sent to a collection agency, due to the additional fees charged by the agency.

Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543, @GeoffFolsom

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