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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: 
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.
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.
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: 
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.

Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons in Washington

Document, Published: 
Monday, February 10, 2014

The ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services issued a report examining the unfair burdens court-ordered debts impose on poor people in Washington. “Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor” exposes a counterproductive system and calls for reform.

Report Exposes Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons in Washington

Document, Published: 
Monday, February 10, 2014

The ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services today issued a report examining the unfair burdens court-ordered debts impose on poor people in Washington. “Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor” exposes a counterproductive system and calls for reform.

Published: 
Friday, May 31, 2013
When people are convicted of a crime, they expect to be sentenced to jail time or probation.  But there are other long-lasting consequences – and these can be unfair and counter-productive.

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