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Washington Jail a Modern-Day Debtor’s Prison

In Washington state’s Spokane County, some people are serving more jail time for failing to pay court costs than they served under their original sentence.

Michael Lafferty was sentenced to less than 90 days for a third-degree assault conviction. Court costs and restitution assessed by the Superior Court totaled $2,207; an additional 12 percent interest began to accrue on the costs the moment he was sentenced. Lafferty has long since completed his jail term. But because he didn’t pay the court fees he was jailed an additional 75 days. The way the law is being applied, Lafferty could literally be indebted to and imprisoned by the county for the rest of his life.

“From the outside looking in, it’s a modern-day debtor’s prison,” said John Rodgers, a Spokane County Public Defender.

According to a state study published in early 2009, the practice of incarcerating citizens who have defaulted on court costs is counterproductive in terms of reducing recidivism. Even people like Lafferty, with only a single conviction on their record, can become “ensnared in the criminal justice system long after they’ve completed their original sentences,” the study stated.

A quick calculation indicates that at 12 percent interest, Lafferty could be in debt for almost six years even if he pays the court $50 per month. The fact that he lives on a $674-per-month disability check means he will likely never pay off his debt.

Many of the people incarcerated for delinquent court costs are on Social Security or other fixed incomes or forms of public assistance.

“This is what keeps me awake,” said public defender April Pearce. “Locking these people up when they make about $300 per month. It bothers me because it doesn’t punish crime. It punishes people because they are poor. It’s like nobody can ever get from underneath the system even if they tried.”

Pearce tracked her clients who were incarcerated for indebtedness. She calculated that over a one-year period, Spokane County spent $3 million keeping them in jail. That total did not include booking fees, medical or other miscellaneous expenses.

The additional 75 days that Lafferty spent behind bars cost Spokane County over $6,000; instead of alleviating his indebtedness, his bill has reached nearly $3,000.

County clerk officials said they were flexible when it comes to collecting court costs, and charge as little as $5.00 per month. However, a records search and numerous interviews did not reveal a single person with a $5.00 monthly payment. One woman, who requested anonymity, has a monthly income of $400 but is required to pay $50 a month on her court costs.

Judge Maryann C. Moreno presides over the Superior Court for Spokane County. She acknowledged that many of the people who come before her are poor, but insisted they must be held accountable. Apparently she meant accountable for their court debts and not their crimes, since the people in question have already served their time.

Robert Stanley was participating in drug therapy sessions at the Union Gospel Mission when he was arrested and sent to jail for failing to pay his court costs. Jason Wagner had served his sentence and moved to Texas. When he returned to Spokane to take custody of his son, the county locked him up for unpaid court debts.

“I thought I was done paying,” said Wagner. “This messed up trust with my family, they think I committed another crime.” Even when he attempted to pay it wasn’t enough. Wagner tried to give the county collections officer his last $240 but she turned it down, opting to leave him in jail.

“Spokane County makes it so undoable,” said Breanne Beggs, executive director of the Center for Justice. “Poverty should not be the top priority in terms of putting people in jail. It’s a diversion of our resources.”

As it stands, Spokane County’s jail is filled to overflowing, and county officials are asking voters to approve an increase in property taxes so they can build a new facility. If approved, the jail would cost $245 million to construct and $8 million annually to operate.

Even hardliners are skeptical of the county’s approach to assessing and collecting court costs. “I’ve always thought the interest was too high,” said Gary Berg, chief deputy of the Spokane County clerk’s office. But he pointed out that his hands are tied. “[T]he changes have to be legislative,” he observed.

David Bennett, who was hired to evaluate Spokane County’s criminal justice system, noted there were problems. “We want some accountability, but we have to make it attainable,” he said. “The role of the jail when it comes to punishing people who can’t pay has to be re-evaluated.”

Nationally, 80 percent of defendants charged with a felony are indigent. Not only is Washington one of only a few states that incarcerate citizens for failing to pay court costs, it is also one of the few states to charge interest on those costs.

“[W]e absolutely don’t have people sitting in jail because they owe court fines,” said Walt Beglau, prosecutor for Marion County in Salem, Oregon, in contrast to the situation in Spokane.

Some have suggested that Spokane County use a collection agency instead of allowing court clerks to send debtors to jail. Kootenai County, Idaho began using a collection agency in 2002, and according to County Clerk Dan English “it has been quite effective.”

Under the original system, clerks in Kootenai County averaged $3,900 a week in collections. Now that they are using a collection agency, the recovery rate has increased to $8,000 a week.

“It reduced a lot of failure to pay,” said English. “With jail space at a premium, and the cost to jail them, it seemed like a better option.”

“We are still evaluating collections as an option,” stated Spokane County Clerk Tom Fallquist, who noted that interest rates for collection agencies can exceed the 12 percent levied by the court. Regardless, “[n]o collections agencies have the power to put people in jail [but] the clerk’s office does,” said Beggs of the Center for Justice.

Beglau agreed. “Governments can’t afford to continue to build jails. The more alternatives you can find, the better off you going to be.” Unless, of course, the goal is to collect as much money in court costs as possible, without regard to the fiscal and societal costs of incarcerating people in order to do so.

Source: The Spokesman-Review

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