Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons in Washington

Nick Allen, CLS Attorney

We frequently hear from people across Washington State who are trying to successfully transition back into society after serving their time in prison, but face many significant barriers. One of the most difficult to overcome is the burden of Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) – the fees, fines, and costs imposed by the state's courts on top of criminal sentences, averaging $2,450 per person in our state.

While some of these costs may not seem like large amounts, in many cases these costs set up poor people for failure instead of promoting rehabilitation. Even though the state and federal constitutions and case law require courts to consider a person’s ability to pay before sanctioning him for non-payment, some counties routinely incarcerate people for non-payment.

Too many tragic stories make this burden clear. Valerie Bodeau, a mother of two with another on the way, is stuck with $10,000 in court-imposed debt seven years after her release as highlighted on KPLU Radio:

“I have been completely clean for over 10 years now. I’m a full-time student. I’ve been going to school for close to two years, and I’ve maintained a 4.0 GPA every single quarter," Bodeau said.

But when Bodeau was sentenced to prison, the judge also ordered her to pay $7,000 in fines and restitution. And that debt has been accruing interest at a rate of 12 percent.

Bodeau says making the required $50 a month payment is often impossible. For failure to pay, warrants have been issued for her arrest four times, once while she was homeless.

Virginia Dickerson, of Richland, has worked hard to recover from her drug problems and volunteers to help others overcome their addictions. But, as the Huffington Post reported, if she can’t pay $8,000 in fines, including $2,000 in interest, her attempts to turn her life around will be shattered:

“I’ve done my time, and I’m doing anything in my power to clean up the wreckage of my past,” Dickerson said. “But I can’t pay the amount they want me to pay.”

Columbia Legal Services joined with the ACLU of Washington to investigate LFO policies and practices throughout Washington State, with a  focus on four Washington counties: Benton, Clark, Clallam, and Thurston. The result is Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor, a report CLS co-authored with the ACLU of Washington, that provides firsthand evidence of the impact LFOs have on Washington residents, their families, and our communities.

Our investigation uncovered problems in each county, including how courts are incarcerating people for non-payment even when they are destitute and unable to pay. The consequences of being incarcerated for non-payment can include losing your house, your job, and other opportunities to productively re-enter society. CLS and the ACLU of Washington are encouraged that Clallam, Clark, Thurston, and other non-investigated counties and municipalities have reached out to us in response to the report and we have had productive conversations.

We believe that the poor shouldn’t face harsher punishment than the rich, and that incarceration shouldn’t be a tool to force payment from those already struggling to survive. We include recommendations in the report that will not only relieve indigent people of unnecessary burdens stemming from LFOs, but could save counties valuable resources.

Read more about our report or download a copy of the report [PDF]. Also watch a video and see media coverage of the report.