Closing debtors’ prison eliminates options

The so-called “debtors’ prison” policy in Benton County appears to be coming to an end.

County commissioners recently voted to withdraw the credit that had been given to those owing court fines for time served in jail or on a work crew. While some will cheer this decision, there are those who will be sorry to see these options eliminated.

In Benton County, you could be sentenced to jail time for failing to pay court-imposed fees, and there are those who say that results in a “debtors’ prison” where the poor are further punished for their crimes for lack of financial means.

Under pressure from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and area prosecutors, county commissioners said they plan to end the practice and, in essence, did so by removing the set day rate for paying off fines by using jail time or work crew service instead of money for those fees.

Credits in Benton County had been $50 per day for time spent in jail or $70 per day for work crew service. Most other counties in the state send cases with unpaid fines to a collection agency.

And while some may see this as a win for those struggling to remedy their fines and fees, others are not so sure this was the best move.

District court judges do not agree with the commissioners’ decision, but will abide by it.

Judges say state statute and court law support the practice of allowing people to pay down their fines through jail time or work crew service, and that it has been an effective way to hold criminals accountable. But the ACLU contends the practice is unconstitutional and disproportionally targets the poor.

Now, however, those with unpaid debts will be sent to collections agencies, where the cost may escalate as much as 40 percent because of fees charged for collecting the debt. If they are employed, they could end up with garnishments and their credit damaged.

Whether that’s a better option for those already struggling is questionable. For some folks, it may have been more practical to spend some time on a work crew or even in jail to clear their debt. At least the cost to pay off their financial obligations would not increase.

The ACLU does not seem to be considering that aspect, and filed suit over Benton County’s system for paying court fines. In light of the commissioners’ recent decision to do away with the “debtor’s prison,” ACLU officials said it is a good first step, but there is more work to be done and the lawsuit stands.

The ACLU wants more training for prosecutors, judges, and public defenders. It also wants education on a state Supreme Court decision earlier this year requiring judges to ask about a defendant’s ability to pay legal financial obligations and not impose them if they can’t be paid.

But this kind of defeats the purpose of paying for your crime.

We’ll be interested to see the full ramifications of the change in the practice in Benton County. Until then, the jury is out.