Funding the Criminal Justice System on the Backs of the Poor: ACLU Sues Benton County for Operating Debtors’ Prison

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

After struggling with addiction and mental illness, Jayne Fuentes served her time, found a job and got her life back on track. She’s been sober and crime-free for three years, but one thing still dogs her: fear of being jailed or forced to do physical labor because she can’t afford to pay the government.

Fuentes is among the scores of people who owe Benton County thousands of dollars in legal financial obligations (LFOs), which are fines, fees, costs and restitution imposed as part of a criminal sentence. The county routinely assesses LFOs in amounts upwards of $1,000 without considering the person’s ability to pay. Those who can’t pay are sent back to jail or must pay $5 a day to toil on a work crew.

When she was released from prison in 2013, Fuentes was unemployed and owed a pile of debt to Benton County. Before she could even find a job, her payment to the county was due. Since she had no money to pay it and wanted to stay out of jail, she had to submit to manual labor.

“Instead of working for money that I could have used to get off public assistance and to pay my fees and fines, I had to work for the county for free,” Fuentes said.

Now Fuentes works at a fast-food restaurant, but she doesn’t earn enough to be able to pay her fines and cover her basic needs. “I’m constantly afraid that if I get sick or miss a payment for reasons beyond my control, I’ll go to jail,” she said.

Benton County’s profit-driven system of LFOs isn’t just counterproductive; it’s unconstitutional. It puts the county’s interest in revenue above the rights of indigent people.

Fuentes is a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit challenging this system of collecting court-imposed debts. Filed by the ACLU and Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC, it asserts the county wrongfully punishes people for being poor and fails to ensure there is a meaningful inquiry into people’s ability to pay.

Benton County designed and runs this system because it generates substantial revenue and other financial benefits for the county, the lawsuit says. If a person is incarcerated for nonpayment of court-imposed debts in a case initially prosecuted by a city in Benton County, the city pays the county approximately $70 per day to defray the costs of running the jail.

“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,” ACLU-WA Legal Director Emily Chiang said. 

The sentences are imposed at hearings that provide no meaningful opportunity for defendants to explain why they have been unable to pay. The county also inadequately funds, trains, and supervises the public defenders who represent poor people at these hearings; as a result, indigent defendants do not receive constitutionally required meaningful assistance of counsel.

To pay court-imposed debts, Jayne Fuentes and other plaintiffs in the suit have had to take from money needed for basic living expenses – for food, housing, or raising children. Our criminal justice system should not force people to make such choices by threatening them with jail or involuntary labor.

Yet in Washington and around the country, cities and counties have increasingly sought to fund the criminal justice system and other government functions off the backs of vulnerable people. Benton County’s LFO system was highlighted in Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor, a report published in 2014 by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services. The organizations called upon the county to change its LFO collection policies and practices, but county policymakers continued their commitment to an unconstitutional system.