Settlement Reached in Lawsuit Ending Benton County’s Modern-Day Debtors’ Prison

News Release: 
Wednesday, June 1, 2016

County No Longer Jails or Forces Manual Labor on People
Who Can’t Afford to Pay Court-Imposed Debts

The American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC today announced a settlement of a class-action lawsuit against Benton County in central Washington over its unconstitutional system for collecting court-imposed debts. The suit (Fuentes v. Benton County) ended the County’s practice of jailing, threatening to jail, or forcing manual labor on poor people unable to afford legal financial obligations (LFOs) imposed by the County.

“We are very pleased that Benton County has stopped operating a modern-day debtors’ prison. No one should have to go to jail or perform manual labor simply because they are too poor to pay their fines.” said ACLU of Washington staff attorney Prachi Dave.

“The County has finally ended its longstanding practice of punishing people for their poverty. Thousands of individuals no longer have to worry about being carted off to jail because of their financial circumstances,” said attorney Toby Marshall of Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC.

Legal financial obligations (commonly referred to as LFOs) are fines, fees, costs, and restitution that are imposed as part of a criminal sentence. Benton County routinely assessed these charges in amounts upwards of $1,000 without considering a person’s ability to pay. Indigent people who were unable to pay the LFOs were sentenced to incarceration in jail or to toil on a work crew. And the sentences were imposed at hearings that provided no meaningful opportunity for defendants to explain why they were unable to pay.

After the suit was filed, the Board of Benton County Commissioners repealed the resolution that had authorized jail or manual labor for failure to pay LFOs. And the County quashed existing warrants for failure to pay and released everyone being held in jail solely for failure to pay.

Under terms of the settlement announced today:

  • The County will not issue warrants over noncompliance with LFO payments.
  • Benton County District Court judges must inquire about a person’s ability to pay at any hearing over alleged non-payment of LFOs.  Individuals will not be punished if it is determined that they lack the financial means to pay the LFOs.
  • Individuals will be entitled to court hearings to seek reductions in the amount of their outstanding LFOs or a waiver of some or all of those LFOs.
  • Any person facing a hearing over alleged non-payment of LFOs that could lead to incarceration will receive written notice at least 21 days before the hearing.
  • Benton County public defenders and prosecutors will participate in training on laws and procedures for the constitutional assessment and collection of LFOs.

The suit was filed in October 2015 in Yakima County Superior Court on behalf of three indigent plaintiffs – Jayne Fuentes, Gina Taggart, and Reese Groves – who suffered serious hardships as a result of court-imposed debts that were imposed without a determination of their ability to pay. All three have been incarcerated or made to do manual labor because they could not afford the LFOs.  And all three faced the constant fear that they could be jailed again in the future for their inability to pay.

The suit said that Benton County’s debtors’ prison system violated the U.S. and Washington State Constitutions, which prohibit incarcerating a person for non-payment of court-imposed fines, fees, and costs without a meaningful hearing and consideration of alternatives to incarceration. The landmark cases Bearden v. Georgia (U.S Supreme Court, 1983), State v. Blazina (Wash. Supreme Court, 2015) and Smith v. Whatcom County District Court (Wash. Court of Appeals, 2002) make clear that people may not be incarcerated for non-payment of court-imposed debts if their failure to pay is due to their poverty.

"Across the country, counties and cities seeking revenue are using jail and forced labor to coerce poor people to pay fines and fees they cannot afford. This settlement sends the message that those practices will not be tolerated and must come to an end," said Nusrat Choudhury, staff attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "These reforms will help ensure that people's freedom no longer rests on their financial circumstances."

The ACLU highlighted the problem of debtors’ prisons nationwide in a report issued in 2010, In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons. 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 plaintiffs are represented by ACLU of Washington attorney Prachi Dave; Nusrat Choudhury and Dennis Parker of the American Civil Liberties Union, Racial Justice Program; and Toby Marshall and Elizabeth Adams of Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC.