Settlement ends debtors’ prison in Washington county

After struggling with addiction and mental illness, Jayne Fuentes served her time, found a job and got her life back on track. But even though she’d been sober and crime-free for years, one thing dogged her: fear of being jailed or forced to do physical labor because she can’t afford to pay the government.

Jayne is among the scores of people who owe Benton County, Washington thousands of dollars in legal financial obligations (LFOs), which are fines, fees, costs and restitution imposed as part of a criminal sentence. For years, Benton County, in central Washington, has routinely assessed LFOs in amounts upwards of $1,000– without considering the person’s ability to pay. Those who can’t pay were sent back to jail or ordered to pay $5 a day to toil on a work crew.

This practice has forced Jayne and others to take from money needed for basic living expenses – for food, housing, or raising children.

They got relief June 1, when the American Civil Liberties of Washington (ACLU-WA) announced a settlement of a class-action lawsuit (Fuentes v. Benton County) against Benton County over its unconstitutional system for collecting court-imposed debts. Now, Jayne and others with LFOs no longer live in fear of being jailed or forced onto a work crew for their district court debts. Benton County quashed existing warrants for failure to pay and released everyone being held in jail solely for failure to pay. The Board of Benton County Commissioners repealed the resolution that had authorized jail or manual labor for failure to pay LFOs.

“We are very pleased that Benton County has stopped operating 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,” said ACLU of Washington staff attorney Prachi Dave.

Under terms of the settlement, Benton County District Court judges must inquire about a person’s ability to pay at any hearing over alleged non-payment of LFOs. Individuals will not be punished if it is determined that they lack the financial means to pay the LFO, and will be entitled to court hearings to seek reductions in the amount of their outstanding LFOs or a waiver of some or all of those LFOs.
Any person facing a hearing over alleged non-payment of LFOs that could lead to incarceration will receive written notice at least 21 days before the hearing. Also, Benton County public defenders and prosecutors will participate in training on laws and procedures for the constitutional assessment and collection of LFOs.

The suit, filed in October 2015 in Yakima County Superior Court on behalf of three indigent plaintiffs – Jayne Fuentes, Gina Taggart, and Reese Groves – said that Benton County’s debtors’ prison system violated the U.S. and Washington State Constitutions, which prohibit incarcerating a person for non-payment of court-imposed fines, fees, and costs without a meaningful hearing and consideration of alternatives to incarceration. The landmark cases Bearden v. Georgia (U.S. Supreme Court, 1983), State v. Blazina (Washington Supreme Court, 2015) and Smith v. Whatcom County District Court (Washington Court of Appeals, 2002) make clear that people may not be incarcerated for non-payment of court-imposed debts if their failure to pay is due to their poverty.

The courts agree: A person’s freedom should not depend on their financial circumstances.

“Across the country, counties and cities seeking revenue are using jail and forced labor to coerce poor people to pay fines and fees they cannot afford. This settlement sends the message that those practices will not be tolerated and must come to an end,” said Nusrat Choudhury, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.

The plaintiffs were represented by ACLU of Washington attorney Prachi Dave; Nusrat Choudhury and Dennis Parker of the American Civil Liberties Union, Racial Justice Program; and Toby Marshall and Elizabeth Adams of Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC.

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