The Washington state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued Benton County, Wash. and accused it of sending people to jail or forcing them to toil on work crews if they fail to pay their court fines.

The ACLU and a Seattle-based law firm allege the county’s system for collecting court fees is unconstitutional.

Three people - Jayne Fuentes, Gina Taggart and Reese Groves - filed the class-action lawsuit. The three were made to serve jail time or on a work crew after court fees allegedly were imposed unlawfully and without deciding if the defendants could pay back the fees, according to Seattle-based Terrell Marshall Law Group and the ACLU’s Washington chapter. 

The ACLU has long alleged that Benton County District Court penalizes defendants without investigating whether they can actually afford to pay their fines. It detailed the practice in a 2014 report that raised objections from the court’s judges, one of whom argued that defendants have an opportunity to speak up at sentencing if they can’t afford the fines.

Superior courts in Washington can impose fines on people that have been convicted in county court in order to pay back the court fees incurred over the duration of that person's case, according to Washington state law. Courts further are allowed to set up monthly payment plans to help people pay back money owed.

Benton County allegedly has a history of under-funding and under-training public defenders so that the defendants are not receiving proper legal assistance, according to the ACLU and the Terrell Marshall Law Group. Toby Marshall of Terrell Marshall Law Group said the county has created a system for collecting debts that punishes people for their poverty and prioritizes generating revenue at the expense of protecting the rights of the poor. ACLU attorney Vanessa Hernandez accused the county of running a modern day debtors’ prison. She said several indigent people on any given day are in jail or forced to do manual labor simply because they’re too poor to pay the government. But Judge Joseph Burrowes said it’s a misnomer that jail time is being imposed without any due-process rights. He said the courts are following the law.The lawsuit, which was filed in Yakima County (Wash.) Superior Court, is part of a long national effort by the ACLU to combat court fines on poor defendants. In 2010, the group published a report that examined the way courts impose fines in Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana and Washington state, noting that the fines can often compound with interest or late fees, contributing to the impoverishment of some defendants.DeKalb County, Ga., earlier this year, agreed to reform its system after a federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU. The town of Clanton, Ala., also cut its ties with a private, for-profit probation company that threatened to jail people for nonpayment of fines after a lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.


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