Paying The Price:
Benton County jail - A debtors prison?
When: Friday October 24th, 2014
Where: 11:30a - 1p Richland Shilo Inn
or Email RSVP@ColumbiaBasinBadgers.com
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Cancellation Deadline: Noon on Tuesday, Oct 21st; No-Shows will be charged.
Cost: $20 for members, $25 for non members, $30 Day of event
Columbia Basin Badger Club
A yearlong NPR investigation found that the costs of the criminal justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders. It's a practice that causes the poor to face harsher treatment than others who commit identical crimes and can afford to pay. Some judges and politicians fear the trend has gone too far.
The Threat Of Pay Or Stay -
But some communities argue they make needed money from fines and fees.
NPR obtained a year of jail records from Benton County and sampled data over a four-month period in 2013. On a typical day, about a quarter of the people who were in jail for misdemeanor offenses were there because they had failed to pay their court fines and fees.
Benton County District Court Judge Robert Ingvalson defends the county's heavy use of fines and fees — and jail time for those who don't pay. He says it's needed to hold people accountable when they break laws.
"If they won't pay the money, the only thing we can take from them at that point is their time," Ingvalson says.
But Vanessa Torres Hernandez, an attorney with the ACLU of Washington who recently wrote a report criticizing the practice, disagrees.
"If you have resources, a court fine and fee isn't a big deal. You can pay that money. You can walk free. But for people who are already poor, the court fine and fee is in essence an additional sentence," she says.
One result, she says, is that poor people are faced with difficult choices, sometimes using money they need for food or rent to pay court costs to stay out of jail.
Benton County collects just a fraction of all the fines and fees it's owed. But the county still collected $13 million in 2012 — making it one of the state's top revenue producers.
There is some debate in Benton County about whether that's a good thing. Court officials note with pride how much money they raise. But local police chiefs say money goes out, too. It costs the police departments about $65 a day to keep someone in jail for not paying their fines.
The county prosecutor worries that the practice is unfair to poor defendants, and he has asked local judges to put a cap on how many days they will put people in jail.
"I actually have some question about the fairness of some of the fines that are imposed," says Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Andy Miller. "But a lot of these fines are mandatory, set by the legislature."
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