The U.S. Is Locking People Up For Being Poor

The U.S. Is Locking People Up For Being Poor

Virginia Dickerson says she’s devoted the last three years to recovering from the drug problems that entangled her in the criminal justice system throughout her teens and 20s.

Now in her mid-30s, she’s been out of prison for more than a year, working 30 hours a week as a cook and server at a restaurant in Richland, Wash. She says she’s also looking for a full-time job, and volunteering for two organizations that help people overcome addictions and a third that provides arts programs to teens.

Still, if she fails to pay off the $8,000 in fines that she still owes county courts in southern Washington as a result of her arrests several years ago, she could end up right back in jail. District and Superior courts in Benton County ordered her to pay a total of $130 a month toward fines and fees stemming from two drug arrests in 2010 and 2011, one for possession of methamphetamines and the other for delivery. Dickerson was fined about $6,000 for her two drug charges, but has accrued about $2,000 in interest.

“I’ve done my time, and I’m doing anything in my power to clean up the wreckage of my past,” Dickerson said. “But I can’t pay the amount they want me to pay.”

In recent years, local governments throughout the United States have locked up growing numbers of people for failing to pay their legal debts. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice released a pair of wide-ranging reports on the practice in 2010. Now, a new report takes a closer look at the emergence of modern-day "debtors' prisons” in Washington state, specifically.

People throughout the state are often sent to jail because they can’t afford to pay the heavy fines and legal fees issued by county courts, says the report, released Monday by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services.

In Benton County, the problem is particularly severe; about 20 percent of the jail population is there because of unpaid legal charges. The county's District Court fines people for misdemeanors like driving without a license, and the Superior Court orders defendants who are convicted of violent crimes and property offenses to pay restitution to their victims. In both courts, defendants are often ordered to pay for the cost of their trials.

Throughout the state, defendants frequently must pay fines, fees and other charges exceeding several thousand dollars per conviction, accruing interest at the rate of 12 percent per year. Those who don’t have the money ultimately face what the report describes as a “demoralizing cycle of court hearings, contempt charges, and arrest warrants.” This system “punishes people simply for being poor and brings little to no benefit to the government or the general public,” the report argues. “It even results in some poor people being locked up in jail because they cannot afford to pay debts -- a modern version of the despised debtors’ prisons.”

Andrew Miller, the county's prosecuting attorney, said he thinks the Superior Court is right to order criminals to pay restitution to their victims. But he criticized the District Court's practice of imposing heavy fines on defendants who can't pay, and he conceded that both courts sometimes go too far in requiring poor people to pay for their trials. "In cases where someone truly can't pay, I don't think the court needs to be so aggressive," he said.

A spokesperson for the Benton County administrator didn't reply to a message seeking comment.

Under the U.S. Constitution, Americans can’t be jailed for failing to pay their debts when the reason for their failure to pay is poverty. But in Washington and other states, county governments get around that by insisting poor defendants could find a way to pay if they simply tried hard enough. “You hear judges say, ‘Oh, you have a tattoo, you can pay,’” said Vanessa Hernandez, a co-author of the report. “Or, ‘Why don’t you just mow some lawns?’ There’s not a specific enough standard for whether they have the ability to pay.”

Angela Albers, one of five people profiled in the report, spent 21 days in jail in 2012 after incurring more than $3,000 in fines and court fees for a drug arrest, and two charges of driving with a suspended license. “I was getting $126 a week from unemployment,” she told the ACLU. “It wasn’t even enough to pay for rent and food, much less fines. I tried to talk to the clerk and explain my situation, but the clerk just told me that I had to pay the $100 per month the court ordered.”

Although data on the cost of incarcerating people specifically for unpaid debts is hard to come by, Hernandez believes the costs outweigh the benefits. “We could calculate the cost of incarcerating a person for any number of days, but even that is significantly below the real cost of incarceration,” Hernandez said. “You’d have to factor in judicial time, clerk time, and police time in serving these warrants, and that doesn’t even account for lost of productivity when you throw someone in jail.”

The ACLU first investigated this issue in 2010, studying the assessment and collection of court fines and fees in Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia and Washington. In New Orleans, 16 men who couldn’t pay their debts were sentenced to jail in the span of one week, according to that report. In Ohio, a woman who couldn’t pay a $250 legal debt was held in jail for over a month. In all five states, cash-strapped local governments jailed poor defendants who couldn’t pay their debts.

Four years later, the practice is still prevalent in many states. Last week, a report by the Human Rights Watch organization revealed that thousands of courts in Southern states jail people who can’t keep up with the fees imposed on them by private probation companies.

Some states have begun curtailing their versions of the practice. In Ohio, the state Supreme Court announced last week that it would hand out "bench cards" to state judges, encouraging them to offer payment plans to people who couldn’t afford their fines.

Hernandez said she hopes that Washington will take even stronger measures. “We recognize that there should be consequences for people’s actions, and that fines and fees can sometimes serve that role,” she said. “But we believe that punishment should be proportionate and that people should have opportunities to meet their obligations, and it seems the system is set up now in a way that doesn’t allow those opportunities.”

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