In Focus: Benton County debtors’ prison has no winners

Our Benton County courts have been criticized locally and nationally for imposing financial penalties on people convicted of crimes and then for jailing the ones who are unable to pay those penalties. About 100 people every day are in our jail simply because they have not been able to pay their court-ordered fines and fees. We are the only county in Washington that jails people in large numbers for failure to pay fines.

I want to make four points about the debtors’ prison phenomenon our judges have created:

Benton County property owners pay twice to punish these people and they pay a lot of money. We pay to jail these people for the real crimes they committed and we pay again to jail them because they don’t pay their fines. Now, it is true that Benton County’s courts have a higher fine repayment rate than other counties, but consider this: we property owners pay $3 for every $1 of extra fines revenues that the courts like to brag about. We would be getting some amount of fines and fees from defendants anyway. To get a little more, we pay a lot more for courts to keep records on these people and hold hearings, for law enforcement to track them down and bring them to jail, and, of course, we pay for extra jail costs. What sense does this make?

Benton County’s courts treat low-income people more harshly than they treat you and me when they run afoul of the law. When middle class and rich folks commit crimes, we hire attorneys and negotiate in our famous adversarial legal system and try to get fair penalties for the wrong we did. Then we do our time in jail and pay our fines and try to get on with our lives. Not so for the low-income people in Benton County. They have to pay 12 percent interest — yes, 12 percent — on their fines and fees. They get new fees every year added to the totals that they will never be able to pay, and they spend more time in jail than you and I would because they cannot pay. Why should the poor be treated more harshly than you and me? Let’s punish people for the crimes they commit, not for their poverty. What would it look like if the courts tailored people’s fines and court costs to what they can really pay and with a view toward helping them productively re-enter the society they have harmed?

We are making our problems worse by jailing people who don’t pay their fines and court costs. When we jail people who fail to pay fines, we create more social chaos. Really. More homelessness, more addiction, more mental health woes, more children in foster homes, more people losing their minimum-wage jobs because they are being hauled back into jail. More hopelessness. I’m thinking of Rebecca who lost her job at Wendy’s when she was picked up on a warrant for failure to pay a $1,200 fine for a domestic violence charge. Her 6-year-old son is still in foster care. And there’s Carlos, a 50-year-old paranoid schizophrenic on disability who got into an argument with his apartment manager (disturbing the peace) and shoved the police officer when he arrived (resisting arrest). After he did 45 days for these two charges (and became psychotic while in jail), he was brought back three months later to do 60 more days because he did not make payments on his $3,000 fine. He again went psychotic in jail despite the efforts of jail staff. Carlos gets $9,000 a year in disability payments. Disability payments are protected by law from being taken for fines and fees. Our courts take the disability funds anyway. What sense does creating more social chaos make? More people doing time for fines means more pressure on Benton County’s already-stressed social services network. We property owners will end up paying more yet again.

“Benton County, Washington. Is that the Debtor’s Prison Capital of the USA?” Lots of people are out there trying to sell our county as a great place to raise a family and do business. We like to see ourselves as conservative, friendly, even welcoming. But our courts are telling the rest of the world that we are a harsh and punitive community: “If you are ever down on your luck and make a wrong choice, don’t live here!” Many of us may not see our debtors’ prison as a serious issue — “they did the crime, let them do the (extra) time” — but much of the country will see debtors’ jail as serious. Do we really want a national reputation as harsh and punitive.

There is more to say, but I’ll stop. Please tell your city council member to stop your city paying the courts for debtor’s prison. Tell your county commissioner to stop approving budgets for debtors’ prison. When you vote for judgeships in November, write in your favorite attorney. “Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, But he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted.” Isaiah 11:4