The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against a Washington county, who they accuse of running a debtor’s prison. The ACLU accuses Benton County of jailing offenders who cannot pay fines without accounting for their financial
“Benton County is operating a well-oiled machine specifically designed to wring money out of poor people for the county’s financial benefit — and if that means people have to sit in jail or do manual labor, so be it,” said Emily Chiang, ACLU Washington chapter legal director.
The ACLU also contends the practice of jailing people who cannot pay court fines is unconstitutional because it does not allow for a hearing. Local prosecutors and elected officials have also expressed their concern over the practice. Benton County commissioner James Beaver told The Associated Press that all three commissioners oppose sending people to jail for not being able to pay court fines.
“We told them a year and a half ago they were going to get sued,” said Beaver. “They politely told me I don’t have statutory authority to tell them what to do.”
Benton County prosecutor Andy Miller said he complained about the practice to judges and commissioners two years ago.
“The judges do it, and there’s not even a prosecutor in the courtroom,” he said.
There seems to be a financial motive for the fines. The Tri-City Herald reported the Benton County District Court raked in $9.8 million from fines and other court fees last year. Defendants who are caught up in the system are faced with a choice. They can either work the fine off by earning $80 per day serving on a work crew, or they can “burn it off” by sitting in jail, which works out to $50 per day. However, if the offender is jailed, his jurisdiction picks up the tab.
“It’s all about the money,” said Commissioner James Beaver, who used to be mayor of Kennewick.
Benton County is not the only place in the country that jails offenders who can’t pay court fines. The ACLU published a report in 2010 detailing how court fines in Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana and Washington trap defendants into a vicious circle of impoverishment and imprisonment. Jayne Fuentes, one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit, said court fines are a constant threat hanging over her head.
“I’m constantly afraid that if I get sick or miss a payment for reasons beyond my control, I’ll go to jail,” said Fuentes, according to an ACLU press release.
The ACLU has launched several legal challenges against the practice across the country. The Associated Press reports that earlier this year, an ACLU lawsuit forced DeKalb County to reform its court system.