Report: Jails throughout country locking up those too poor to pay minor fines
According to a wide range of reports released by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice, local governments throughout the country have locked up a growing number of people for failing to pay minor debts.
The most recent report, takes a look at the emergence of what is known as “debtors prisons” in the state of Washington.
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 Washington, defendants often have to pay fines, fees and other charges that amount to thousands of dollars per conviction. On top of the initial amount, the fines accrue interest at a rate of 12 percent per year. While the U.S. Constitution protects Americans from being jailed for failing to pay debts when the reason is poverty, in Washington and other states, county governments get around that.
By insisting that poor defendants could find a way to pay if they tried, officials are able to detain thousands of people. Some states have started dialing down on the practice. Ohio’s state Supreme Court announced last week that it would hand out bench cards to state judges.
The measure is meant to encourage judges to offer payment plans to people who could not afford their fines.
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