ACLU, lawyers settle ‘debtors’ prison’ lawsuit against Benton County

The ACLU and Benton County have reached a settlement after the ACLU sued the county for jailing people who could not pay court-imposed costs.
The ACLU and Benton County have reached a settlement after the ACLU sued the county for jailing people who could not pay court-imposed costs. Tri-City Herald file

Jayne Fuentes feels like she has been stuck inside the judicial system’s revolving door for more than a decade.

She has done stints in jail and prison, lived on social security and struggled to have a clean and crime-free life with limited resources.

On Wednesday, the Richland woman was a little relieved after learning she had helped change the local system.

A settlement was announced nine months after Fuentes and two other criminal defendants sued Benton County over the constitutionality of its longstanding practice of jailing people for unpaid fines and court costs.

“Benton County is just so hard on people. There are people that are changing their life and trying to start over, and it hinders them every time you put them in jail,” Fuentes told the Tri-City Herald. “I’m happy (about the settlement) because it takes away the threat of being jailed for not being able to pay my fines right now.”

Fuentes said she has a stable job, a place to live and a driver’s license, and would lose it all right now if she was locked up for the approximately $2,700 she believes she owes on Benton County District Court cases.

But she admits the bigger relief is the county is going to change its policies, and that affects not just her but everybody in the system.

Under the time-for-fines program, people who had mounting debt in Benton County District Court and skipped their payments were ordered to sit behind bars or do manual labor on a work crew in exchange for credit.

Court officials said they were justified under a state law that allows criminals convicted of misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors to serve out legal financial obligations, or LFOs. Most courts turn nonpayers over to collection agencies.

The judges said they gave people at least three chances to explain their situation in court, and occasionally adjusted the monthly amount owed, before taking action.

ACLU staff attorney Prachi Dave called it “a modern-day debtors’ prison.”

“No one should have to go to jail or perform manual labor simply because they are too poor to pay their fines,” Dave said in a news release.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in Yakima County, was handled by the ACLU and the Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC of Seattle.

Fuentes and her fellow plaintiffs, Gina Taggart and Reese Groves, each will receive $1,000 as part of the settlement.

Shon Small, chairman of the Benton County Commission, said he wants to make sure everything is all finalized with the settlement before commenting.

“It should actually be taken care of by this coming Tuesday (June 7) at the board meeting. That way we definitely can go ahead and firm everything up,” and then issue a statement, he told the Herald.

Last December, commissioners repealed the resolution that set a day rate for jail time or work crew credit and District Court judges agreed not to incarcerate defendants for the purpose of collecting fees.

At the same time, the Benton County Sheriff’s Office quashed all existing arrest warrants for noncompliance of legal payments and released inmates who were being held solely for failure to pay.

Undersheriff Jerry Hatcher said that came to about 1,700 warrants for District Court that were removed from the system.

He also estimated that between 40 and 60 people were in the jail on any given day serving out fines and 10 to 12 people were on work crew. Some people were sent to other jurisdictions for active cases instead of being completely set free, he said.

Sheriff Steve Keane said he hasn’t seen the settlement yet, but thinks it is a good idea to make changes.

“Obviously we don’t want people sitting in our jail because they don’t have the ability to pay,” he said. “But I also think there needs to be some due diligence done to make sure that they (actually) don’t have the ability to pay and they’re not using the system.”

Under terms of the settlement, District Court judges must ask about a person’s ability to pay at any hearing, and will not punish them if it is determined they lack the financial means.

People will be entitled to a hearing to seek reductions in the outstanding amount owed or a waiver, and a written notice must be received 21 days before the hearing if they’re facing incarceration.

In addition, Benton County prosecutors and public defenders will participate in training on laws and procedures for the constitutional assessment and collection of fines and fees.

Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531, @KristinMKraemer