Report shows hundreds of poor people jailed in Washington state for inability to pay court fees
A decade after serving time for possession and delivery of methamphetamine, Valerie Bodeau is still paying off her debt to society, one $30 check at a time.
In addition to sentencing Bodeau to two years in prison, a Benton County Superior Court judge fined her $7,200, a sum that includes repayment for the cost of Bodeau’s legal defense.
Bodeau said she is always afraid that the U.S. Postal Service will lose her payment, or a court clerk will take too long to process the payment, and for good reason: If she’s late, Benton County can issue a warrant for her arrest. Bodeau has gone to jail four times for missed or late payments.
The fear won’t end soon. Bodeau’s debt is growing because Washington state is among several states that charge a 12 percent annual interest rate on court fees. The rate is second only to Texas, which charges 18 percent. Washington state courts also charge a $100-per-year processing fee until the debt is paid.
Despite two years of consistent payments, Bodeau now owes more than $10,000; $3,000 more than her original sentence. The fear of arrest weighs on her.
“I’ve been clean for over 10 years, and I’m still worried,” she said.
According to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Columbia Legal Services, Bodeau is far from alone. In a report titled “Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons,” the two organizations outline 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 the courts to consider whether an individual can afford to pay the fees.
“This system punishes poverty,” said Nick Allen, a lawyer for Columbia Legal Services. “That is no way to run a criminal justice system.”
The fees are particularly problematic in Benton, Clark, Clallam and Thurston counties, which regularly jail people for missed payments. Benton and Clark counties impose particularly high fees, and Thurston County judges have asked people to use their welfare benefits to pay off fees.
Superior courts can impose 20 different legal fines to pay for the cost of a public defender, a jury trial or for filing fees or costs incurred by the county or city for serving a warrant. On average, people with felonies are charged $2,540.
It has added up. People with sentences in King County owe more than $600 million in unpaid court fees.
Statewide, courts collected $30 million in court fees in 2012.
Most of the people making these payments are poor, said Vanessa Hernandez, a lawyer for the ACLU of Washington. 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 harsh penalties amount to squeezing blood from a turnip, Hernandez said, with people using welfare and social security checks to pay off court fees.
“This is not to say that there shouldn’t be consequences for people’s actions,” Hernandez said. “The criminal justice system has a legitimate interest in deterrent and punishment of a sentence, but there has to be some sense of proportionality here.”
The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed debtors’ prisons in 1983. In Washington, however, many people are jailed for missing payments of their court fees.
In Benton County, the report states that approximately 20 percent of the people in custody are there because of non-payment of their court fees.
Washington state has laws requiring counties to consider whether an individual can pay the fees. Many, however, ignore the rule.
The ACLU and Columbia Legal Services recommend the follow reforms: That the Washington state legislature establish clear criteria for determining a person’s ability to pay court fees, stop the use of welfare checks to pay for court fees, eliminate the 12 percent interest fee for everything except restitution and create a clear process to waive court fees.
The Washington state legislature is considering one bill this session that would eliminate the 12 percent interest rate for some court fees and restrict the courts from imposing additional fees on people who cannot afford to pay them.