April 2014 Bar Bulletin
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April 2014 Bar Bulletin

Modern-Day Debtors' Prisons: Punishing People for Being Poor

By Nick Allen and Vanessa Hernandez


Valarie Bodeau should be a story of successful reentry to society after criminal conviction. Bodeau hasn't been convicted of any crime since 2004. She is a student with a 4.0 GPA and mother to a young child. Yet Bodeau has been repeatedly incarcerated in recent years, solely because she lacks the resources to pay court-ordered debt.

She is burdened with more than $10,000 in legal financial obligations due to decade-old, non-violent, drug-related convictions. Her only income is Social Security disability, which is often not enough to cover even her basic needs.

When Bodeau has missed payments on her legal financial obligations, the court has issued a warrant for her arrest. Each time, Bodeau spent days in jail pending a hearing on her ability to pay. During one of those times, she was forced to withdraw from school due to missed classes; she also has lost housing opportunities due to warrants. Bodeau lives in constant fear that she will be incarcerated and separated from her young child.

Unfortunately, Bodeau and many other Washington residents are caught in a modern-day form of the debtors' prison. While the term "debtors' prison" conjures up images of Dickensian England - poor men and women locked up because of their inability to pay debts - a February report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU) and Columbia Legal Services (CLS) shows that Washington's systems for imposing and collecting legal financial obligations can result in people being incarcerated because they are too poor to pay court-ordered fines and fees.1

The report documents the results of a multi-month investigation into four Washington counties and profiles individuals impacted by these practices.

The Problems

Our investigation tracked systems for imposing and collecting legal financial obligations (LFOs) - the fees, fines, costs and restitution imposed by courts on top of a criminal sentence.2 As we discovered, LFOs often are imposed without any consideration of a person's ability to pay them.

For example, our investigation revealed that many courts routinely required all defendants to repay the county for the cost of a public defender, without first determining whether the defendant had the financial resources to do so. The average amount of non-restitution LFOs imposed in a felony case is $2,540 - a sum so large that poor defendants simply cannot pay it in a lump sum.3

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