‘Debtors’ Prison’ policy scrapped

Due to a lawsuit filed last fall by the ACLU on behalf of Jayne Fuentes, the Benton County Commissioners of Richland, Wash., decided to end their “debtors’ prison” policy, reports Rick Anderson for the Los Angeles Times.

The lawsuit was based on a U.S. Supreme Court precedent that bans the jailing of defendants for being too poor to pay a fine.

Fuentes, who was convicted on three counts of minor theft, had built up $3,000 in fines and restitution charges, reported Anderson.

In an effort to work off her debt, Fuentes said she accepted a work crew job “but when I was done with the work crew, I still owed $2,700 on another debt. I could have ended up in jail again.” It was at this point that the lawsuit was filed.

According to Doug Honig, a spokesperson for the ACLU, similar lawsuits were filed and settled in Biloxi, Miss., Colorado Springs, Colo., and Eastpointe, Mich.

“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,” said Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney for the ACLU.

The Fuentes lawsuit argued that 320 Benton County inmates were jailed in a six and a half month period for being unable to pay their fines.

“This wasn’t about trying to get out of paying my fines,” said Fuentes. “If I had to go back to jail I’d lose my car, my house – everything I worked for. Maybe now I have a chance.”

Fuentes and two other defendants each got a $1,000 settlement fee from Benton County.

–Noel Scott

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