The Washington state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued Benton County on Tuesday, accusing it of sending people to jail or forcing them to toil on work crews if they fail to pay their court fines.
SPOKANE — The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Benton County on Tuesday, accusing it of sending people to jail or forcing them to toil on work crews if they fail to pay their court fines — a practice that makes the poor poorer and amounts to a “modern-day debtors’ prison,” the organization said.
The group has long alleged that Benton County District Court penalizes defendants without investigating whether they can actually afford to pay their fines. It detailed the practice in a report last year that drew objections from the court’s judges, one of whom argued that defendants have an opportunity to speak up at sentencing if they can’t afford the fines.
“The misnomer is that we’re imposing jail time without any due-process rights,” Judge Joseph Burrowes told The Associated Press at the time. “We are following the law. We are doing what is just and fair.”
The court did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday, but Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said he told judges and county commissioners two years ago that he does not agree with the practice.
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“The judges do it, and there’s not even a prosecutor in the courtroom,” he said Tuesday.
The lawsuit, which was filed as a class-action claim in Yakima County Superior Court, is part of a long national campaign by the ACLU to combat the effect of court fines on poor defendants. In 2010, the organization published a report that examined the way courts impose fines in Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana and Washington state, noting that the fines can often compound with interest or late fees, contributing to the impoverishment of some defendants.
The failure to pay often results in more arrests and more fines, and the results have disproportionally incarcerated minority defendants, opponents say. While courts can jail people for willfully refusing to pay, they are required to ensure that people are able to pay.
Earlier this year, DeKalb County, Georgia, agreed to reform its system after a federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU. The town of Clanton, Ala., also cut its ties with a private, for-profit probation company that threatened to jail people for nonpayment of fines after a lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In Benton County, defendants often represented by public defenders have little opportunity to explain why they are unable to pay, the ACLU’s lawsuit said. That’s in part because public defenders are poorly funded and trained, depriving defendants of their right to meaningful assistance of counsel, the lawsuit said.
The ACLU says the court system violated the U.S. and state constitutions, which prohibit incarcerating someone for not paying court-imposed fines, fees and costs without a meaningful hearing and consideration of alternatives to jail.
The named plaintiffs are Jayne Fuentes, Gina Taggart, and Reese Groves, all of whom have been jailed or forced into manual labor because they couldn’t pay fines related to misdemeanor theft or other convictions. All three still owe thousands of dollars and fear they could be jailed in the future, the lawsuit said.