The ACLU (a.k.a. American Civil Liberties Union) recently sued Benton County, Washington for creating what they call a “modern-day debtors’ prison.” This is because the county is sending people to jail or requiring them to join a work crew if they can’t pay their court fines. According to the ACLU this is making the poor even poorer.
What’s Happening in Benton County?
According to the ACLU Benton, County District Court has penalized defendants for quite some time now with no regard as to whether they can actually afford to pay such fines. This practice was even detailed in a report in 2014. Many judges objected to this report stating defendants can speak up at the time of sentencing if they’re unable to afford such fines. These judges claim they’re following the law and doing what’s fair. However, the ACLU claims judges are doing this without a prosecutor even being present in the court room.
There are also claims that public defenders don’t have much of an opportunity to explain why their clients can’t pay because they’re poorly funded and trained, which means defendants don’t have meaningful counsel. Of course, this violates the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits debtor jails.
Even with all of this information under consideration Benton County is still requiring defendants either join a work crew and receive $80 in credit for each day served or receive $50 credit for each day they sit in jail.
The ACLU’s Class Action Lawsuit
The ACLU filed their class action lawsuit in the Yakima County Superior Court as part of their campaign to combat the court fine’s effect on poor defendants. This comes after they filed a report in 2010 looking at Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana and Washington about why courts impose these fines in the first place. They also noted these fines tend to compound when they factor in things like interest and late fees. According to the ACLU this contributes to the impoverishment faced by some defendants and for others it’s led to people being incarcerated because they couldn’t pay. While this is permissible, it’s only permissible if the judge has made sure the person can actually pay, which this lawsuit claims never happens.
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Nusrat Choudhury from the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project says this practice is especially alarming today because since the recession these fines tend to hit people really hard. This is especially true since some jurisdictions have become more aggressive when it comes to collecting them. While things work differently in various jurisdictions, Choudhury claims there’s still the fact that some people are being unfairly jailed simply because they’re too poor to pay the court fees.
In early 2015 DeKalb County, Georgia found themselves faced with a similar lawsuit. They chose to reform their system. What will happen with this case is yet to be seen. In fact, as of today, the court hasn’t made any comment about this case. However, Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller did state that he informed judges and county commissioners two years ago that he didn’t agree with this practice.