The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU) and Terrell Marshall Law Group say that Benton County is operating a “modern-day debtors’ prison.”
The lawsuit filed in October alleges that the county’s court practices impose heavy fines on low-income people at the time of sentencing. When people are unable to pay the fines, often because they cannot afford them, the county jails them or pushes them onto a work crew, each of which will lower the fines incrementally.
The case is centered around how Benton County handles what are called legal financial obligations (lfos), the court fees that are given at the time of sentencing. This can include fines to the city or county government, restitution to a victim and any number of court-related fees to pay for attorneys, juries and filing.
According to the complaint, the Benton County District Court does not consider whether someone is indigent and unable to pay their lfos, and state and federal cases have established in the past that people cannot be jailed for non-payment of court fees if they are poor.
The complaint names three people in particular who struggled under Benton County’s court system, but it is a class action lawsuit on behalf of any indigent person who owes fees to Benton County District Court or anyone who has been jailed in Benton County since October 2012 for not paying their court fees.
Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Brown said the county is still researching the lawsuit and could not respond to many specifics.
“It’s taken them a long time to put this together,” Brown said. “It’s going to take us a while to digest it.”
The ACLU and Terrell Marshall Law Group argue in their complaint that Benton County is relying on lfos to cover the cost of operating the jail and court system. The county receives more money if it jails people for not paying their court fees.
As an example, the complaint explains that an indigent person could owe $400 to the county in court fees. If that person fails to pay the fees, the county receives as much as $1,400.
“It’s actually more beneficial for the county to jail somebody than it is to collect the fines,” said Toby Marshall, an attorney at Terrell Marshall Law Group.
People who are unable to pay are jailed — which shaves off $50 per day from their debt — or put on a work crew — which shaves off $70 per day from their debt. The work crew has strict rules: People can be jailed for failing to show up.
Those on the work crew are doing county work, Marshall said, including landscaping work. If Benton County did not aggressively pursue these lfos, they would have to find other ways to pay for that work, highlighting an example of how the county relies on the court fees to pay for county work.
A survey of Benton County jail rosters from September 2014 to March 2015 showed that 320 people were in jail or on a work crew because of their fines. On average, people owed $2,670.86.
Benton County is just one example of a widespread problem, said Prachi Dave, a staff attorney at the ACLU's Second Chances Project: “This is an issue that is of national importance.”
A 2014 report by the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services titled “Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons” outlines how Washington state courts pile massive fees on people who cannot afford to pay them. Across the state, people with little or no income are saddled with huge debts that can take a lifetime to pay, despite existing laws that require courts to consider whether an individual can pay the fees.
The 2014 report called out Benton County as particularly problematic, alongside Clark, Clallam and Thurston counties.
Courts can impose myriad legal fees, including the costs of a public defender, jury trial, filing fees or fees incurred by the county or city for serving a warrant.
The fees add up. People with sentences in King County owe more than $600 million in unpaid court fees. Statewide, courts collected $30 million in fees in 2012.
Many people incurring these fees are poor. According to the Washington Office of Public Defense, between 80 and 90 percent of people charged with felonies are found to be indigent, meaning that they cannot afford to hire their own attorneys.
The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed debtors’ prisons in 1983. In Washington, however, many people are jailed for missing payments of their court fees.
Washington state has laws requiring counties to consider whether an individual can pay the fees. Many, however, ignore the rule.
This lawsuit is the ACLU and Terrell Marshall Law Group’s attempt to get systemic change in how courts broadly handle lfos. Marshall and Dave each said that they hope Benton County will change its practices. Marshall recommended, among other things, different ways for people to work off their fines, including community service, credit for job searches and credit for getting an education.
“It’s heartbreaking, frankly, to see how people cannot escape this cycle within the criminal justice system simply because they’re poor,” Marshall said.