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‘Debtors’ Prison’ Challenged in Washington

YAKIMA, Wash. (CN) - Benton County, Wash. runs a "modern-day debtors' prison" where poor people who can't afford fines are sent to jail or put on work crews, a class action claims in state court.

Benton County, pop. 176,000, is in south central Washington along the Columbia River, whose twists and turns form the southern, eastern and northern borders of the county. Only 6,000 people live in the county seat, Prosser; the largest cities are Kennewick, pop. 76,000, and Richland, with 48,000.

Three named plaintiffs claim Benton County courts unconstitutionally imprison "scores of indigent persons" on any given day, or partially confine them on work crews "simply because they are too poor to pay the government."

Lead plaintiffs Jayne Fuentes, Gina Taggart and Reese Groves sued Benton County on Tuesday in Yakima County Court, claiming its courts' fee-generating system violates the Sixth and 14th Amendments.

All three claim they were jailed for inability to pay fines, without meaningful assistance of counsel and without an ability-to pay hearing. All three still are indigent and face the prospect of being jailed again or put on a work crew because they still owe fines to the county.

The United States eliminated debtors' prisons under federal law in 1833, but did not take that power away from the states.

Benton County regularly imposes fines, fees and costs of more than $1,000 per criminal offense, according to the complaint. Officials assess legal financial obligations (LFOs) regardless of the person's ability to pay.

"Benton County has created and implemented a standard operating procedure that governs the assessment, imposition, and collection of these LFOs," the complaint states. "At no point in the process is a defendant's ability to pay taken into consideration. Indigent persons who cannot afford the charges are subjected to draconian collection proceedings without a meaningful opportunity to be heard and without meaningful assistance of counsel. They are then sentenced - pursuant to the county's systemic policy, practice, and custom - either to sit in jail or to provide free manual labor to the county (in and of itself a deprivation of liberty, as well as a direct pathway to jail) for weeks or months."

Fuentes says Benton County's board of commissioners and district court judges created the fine system to generate revenue for the county "despite awareness of the adverse impact it has on some of Benton County's poorest residents."

The ACLU and Columbia Legal Services last year published a report on the state's system of LFOs and the burden it placed on the poor. The ACLU is co-counsel in Fuentes' lawsuit.

After the report was published, Joe Burrowes, presiding judge of Benton County District Court, told the Tri-City Herald that he had not been consulted by either organization for the report, titled: "Modern-Day Debtors' Prisons: How Court-Imposed Debts Punish Poor People in Washington."

"We're not aware that we're doing anything wrong, and we're following the law," the judge said. "We'll review the report and take necessary actions if need be."

According to the 48-page lawsuit, policymakers failed to make changes suggested in the ACLU report and "continued their commitment to a system of debt collection that violates the rights of indigent persons for the sake of generating revenue."

The plaintiffs say the county's "debtor's prison system" violates the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Washington State Constitution's prohibition of incarcerating a person for nonpayment of LFOs without a meaningful, pre-deprivation, ability-to-pay hearing and consideration of alternatives.

"The plaintiffs in this case and many other indigent people can only come up with money to pay by forgoing basic living expenses in order to pay LFOs," the ACLU of Washington said in a statement. "Some of them are forced to choose between paying their child support or an electric bill and paying their LFOs. Our criminal justice system should not force people to forgo basic necessities to satisfy LFO payments, and alternatives should be available to those without financial resources."

Fuentes et al. seek class certification, declaratory judgment that the county's LFO policies are unconstitutional, and an injunction against their enforcement.

They also want the county's "custom of failing to provide meaningful assistance of counsel to indigent persons who face charges of nonpayment of LFOs imposed in district court" declared unconstitutional.

Toby Marshall with Terrell Marshall Law Group is assisted by Vanessa Hernandez with the ACLU of Washington, both of Seattle.

A 2010 report from the Brennan Center for Justice on the 15 states with the highest prison populations found that all 15 had jurisdictions that imprisoned people for debt. Washington state was not listed among those 15. The ACLU has been challenging the "modern-day debtors' prisons" in court since 2009.

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