An exorbitant interest rate on court fines and fees help create modern-day debtors’ jails.
THIS is how a modern-day debtors’ prison works.
You are convicted of a felony drug offense. As part of a two-year prison term, a judge imposes $2,300 in fines and fees, without taking into account your ability to pay.
A 12 percent interest rate begins ticking when the gavel drops. The bill keeps right on growing through the prison term; by the time you get out, $600 in interest has been added to the balance. By then, the debt is being handled by a collection agency, which imposes its own fees. Additional fees include paying by credit card, for paying in installments and for missing payments.
If you lose your job, or prioritize feeding your kids over paying the court fines, you face one extra hazard if you happen to live in Benton County: being sent back to jail, or being sent to work on a work crew — at a cost of $5 a day, cash.
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A lawsuit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington against Benton County’s retrograde court policies demands local reform. The ACLU’s Vanessa Hernandez said, based on a six-month sample of the county’s jail roster, 28 percent of the people sent to jail by Benton County District Court were there for nonpayment.
The county prosecutor disavows the practice. So do local court commissioners. But though they were warned over the past two years that a lawsuit by the ACLU was imminent if the practice didn’t change, the court and county commissioners stuck to it.
The ACLU lawsuit also spotlights a statewide issue in need of reform: the exorbitant 12 percent interest rate for court fines and fees, called “legal financial obligations.”
Washington has one of the highest interest rates in the nation on those debts, according to research by the ACLU, which issued a report on local debtors’ jails last year. A majority of states charge zero interest.
The high interest rate is defended by some court officials as an incentive to pay off the fines — including restitution — quickly.
But Alexes Harris, an associate professor of sociology at University of Washington, has studied how court fines are collected in Washington for nine years and found that “it has the counter effect.”
In fact, debts grow so fast, Harris said, that they may seem like a hopeless uphill slog to some defendants. An estimated 80 percent of criminal defendants are too poor to hire an attorney.
The minimum payment for court fines is $20 a month, but courts charge $100 annually just to keep a case open. One of Hernandez’s clients paid down her original legal financial obligation over a decade, yet the balance was still greater than she was originally sentenced to pay.
Gouging indigent defendants is lucrative for the state and local governments. In 2012, the last year data are available, the state and individual counties scooped up half the $29.2 million in legal financial obligations statewide, much more than went to restitution and crime victims combined.
Earlier this year, the state House passed — by a 94-to-4 margin — a bill to cut the usurious interest rate to 2 percent and give judges more latitude in determining defendants’ ability to pay fines and fees.
But state Sen. Mike Padden, the Spokane Republican who chairs the Senate Law and Justice Committee, sought to change the interest rate to 6 percent, and the bill died.
Thanks to the ACLU lawsuit, two problems have been spotlighted: Benton County is running a debtors’ prison and the Legislature is acting like a loan shark for indigent criminal defendants.
Information in this article, originally published Oct. 12, 2015, was clarified Oct. 15, 2015. A previous version of this story didn’t specify the interest rate on unpaid fines proposed by Sen. Mike Padden. That rate was 6 percent.