In a report released Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) documented cases in five states — including Washington — where people were returned to prison because they couldn't pay the fines, fees and costs associated with their criminal sentences.
It took six years of hard work and self-examination, but Claudia “Dia” Sorum looks in the mirror now and sees someone other than a drug-addicted felon.
Sorum, 50, is a college graduate, a college instructor with business cards, a car and an apartment in Des Moines that she shares with two of her four children.
But for all her success, Sorum will be paying for her crimes for years to come: She owes Kitsap County more than $16,000 in victims restitution and court fees for three convictions, including one dating back to 2000.
The debt — which includes more than $3,500 in interest — is now being paid through a collection agency, which she said garnishes almost half of her $3,750 monthly paycheck, leaving her on the financial brink.
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The one thing Sorum is grateful for is that she avoided jail for initially failing to make payments on her debt.
Others in Washington state are not so lucky.
In a report released Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) documented cases in five states — including Washington — where people were returned to prison because they couldn’t pay the fines, fees and costs associated with their criminal sentences.
In fact, some counties in Washington “have adopted ‘auto-jail’ policies, which require defendants to report to jail if they are unable to pay their legal debts, and subject them to arrest if they are unable to pay their legal debts,” the report states.
“It really shocks the conscience,” said Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU of Washington. “It sounds like a relic from an earlier year that we thought we were beyond.”
The ACLU report, “In For A Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prison,” found that aggressive collections practices — including jail time for missed payments — disproportionately affected indigent defendants, and often ended up costing states and counties more than they would recover.
Courts across the county “routinely disregard” U.S. Supreme Court protections that require them first to determine whether people are unwilling or unable to pay before jailing them for failure to pay their “legal financial obligations,” the study concluded.
Jailing someone who cannot pay because of economic circumstances was deemed by the Supreme Court to be fundamentally unfair, the report notes.
Yet some courts do not make that determination before returning people to jail for nonpayment of court debts, the ACLU report found.
It cites the case of James Nason, who was ordered to pay $750 in fines and fees after a 1999 burglary conviction in Spokane County. After seven years of sporadic payments, Nason was arrested for failing to appear in court to explain why he had not paid his debt. He was homeless and living out of his car at the time, but the prosecutor argued that he could have paid the debt by collecting aluminum cans. Nason was ordered to pay $25 a month toward the debt, or turn himself in the following year if he failed to do so. He didn’t pay, and in April 2007 he was sentenced to 120 days in jail and ordered to pay $30 a month or return to jail for 60 more days.
Spokane County dropped the auto-jail policy while Nason’s case was under appeal, and the state Supreme Court ruled last June that Nason’s right to due process was violated because the court failed to determine whether he could, in fact, pay the debt, according to the ACLU’s report.
Interest on debt
While jail is an extreme outcome, attorneys who represent indigent defendants say interest on the debt is an even bigger problem.
Nearly 114,000 defendants in Washington state have outstanding court debts that can tie them to the criminal-justice system for decades, according to the Seattle University School of Law.
In Washington state, those debts accrue at an annual interest rate of 12 percent. That means the debts can continue to grow, making it difficult for indigent defendants to get on with their lives, said Nick Allen, a fellow at Columbia Legal Services in Seattle who is studying the issue.
“The last time I checked, there was more than $500 million in outstanding … debt in King County,” he said.
But not all counties use jail as a stick. Alison Sonntag, chief deputy clerk for the Kitsap County Clerk’s Office, said the county goes to great lengths to work with defendants and does not put them in jail as punishment for nonpayment. The most the county does is issue an arrest warrant to force defendants to appear before a judge to answer questions about why they’re not paying their debt, she said. A defendant picked up on a warrant would spend, at most, a night in jail, Sonntag said.
“We found out a long time ago that hauling people in for not paying their fines is not cost-effective,” she said.
Instead, the county tries to set up a payment schedule and work with the defendant.
Making an effort
That’s what happened to Sorum, the Des Moines woman who works as an instructor at South Seattle Community College helping inmates make the transition from prison to society.
County clerk records show she made no payments for as long as five years on three separate debts, all of which were turned over to collections.
Sorum said that at the time she was unemployed and enrolled in school, and was living with her estranged husband, three children and her father-in-law in an apartment.
She graduated in 2006 with an associate’s degree in arts and an associates degree in web development, and began volunteering with the Life Skills to Work program at the college to gain work experience and help others.
She’s now trying to launch a résumé service, and teaches computer skills to defendants trying to transition back to society.
She said she understands why someone would say that she should pay every penny of her debt, but she said forcing people without money to pay debts they can never really expect to pay doesn’t help society or the individuals trying to turn their lives around.
“I’m trying to give back,” she said. “Why do they make it so hard?”
Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or firstname.lastname@example.org