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Debtor's Prison

It’s like something out of Dickens: Poor people being jailed for failing to pay debts they can never hope to afford. Court-ordered debts impose unfair burdens on poor people in Washington. The ACLU of Washington is exposing this counterproductive system and calling for reform.

Topic Resources

News Release, Published: 
Thursday, June 22, 2017
Washington has joined the 3DaysCount initiative that highlights the harmful consequences that result when people who can’t afford to pay bail are forced to await their trial behind bars, and develops commonsense solutions.
News Release, Published: 
Tuesday, April 4, 2017
The ACLU-WA has filed a petition asking the Washington Supreme Court to direct the Grant County District Court to comply with a Supreme Court ruling that requires them to determine a person’s ability to pay court system debts known as Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) before imposing these debts. When courts impose LFOs on people who cannot afford to pay them, individuals remain trapped in debt, stuck in poverty, and tied to the criminal justice system. Although the suit focuses on Grant County, similar practices exist in many courts around the state.
Published: 
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
When it comes to how healthy you are, money matters— a lot.
News Release, Published: 
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
The lawsuit has ended the County’s practice of jailing, threatening to jail, or forcing manual labor on poor people unable to afford the court fees imposed by the County.
Published: 
Monday, February 22, 2016
People who’ve served their sentences should be allowed to move on with their lives. They shouldn’t be saddled with debt for years or even decades after their release simply because they are too poor to pay court fees.
News Release, Published: 
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
An ACLU-WA lawsuit says Benton County is violating the Constitution by jailing, threatening to jail, or forcing manual labor on people who are too poor to pay court-imposed debts. 
Published: 
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.
Published: 
Monday, March 23, 2015
How do you turn $41 into over $2,000?  Courts across Washington and throughout the U.S. have figured out how to turn small fines for routine traffic violations and other non-violent infractions into major debts for individuals without the means to pay.  HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver recently examined this subject, noting the ways in which differences in race and income levels are creating two justice systems: one for the rich and one for the poor.
Published: 
Thursday, March 12, 2015
The Washington Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that courts must take into consideration a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing discretionary legal financial obligations (LFOs). The ruling represents a significant step towards reforming a system that traps people in a cycle of poverty and incarceration.

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