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The Modern Day American ‘Debtor’s Prison’

Via: Huffington Post

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Virginia Dickerson says she’s devoted the last three years to recovering from the drug problems that entangled her in the criminal justice system throughout her teens and 20s.

Now in her mid-30s, she’s been out of prison for more than a year, working 30 hours a week as a cook and server at a restaurant in Richland, Wash. She says she’s also looking for a full-time job, and volunteering for two organizations that help people overcome addictions and a third that provides arts programs to teens.

Still, if she fails to pay off the $8,000 in fines that she still owes county courts in southern Washington as a result of her arrests several years ago, she could end up right back in jail. District and Superior courts in Benton County ordered her to pay a total of $130 a month toward fines and fees stemming from two drug arrests in 2010 and 2011, one for possession of methamphetamines and the other for delivery. Dickerson was fined about $6,000 for her two drug charges, but has accrued about $2,000 in interest.

“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.”

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In Benton County, the problem is particularly severe; about 20 PERCENT of the jail population is there because of unpaid legal charges. The county’s District Court fines people for misdemeanors like driving without a license, and the Superior Court orders defendants who are convicted of violent crimes and property offenses to pay restitution to their victims. In both courts, defendants are often ordered to pay for the cost of their trials.

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Under the U.S. Constitution, Americans can’t be jailed for failing to pay their debts when the reason for their failure to pay is poverty. But in Washington and other states, county governments get around that by insisting poor defendants could find a way to pay if they simply tried hard enough. “You hear judges say, ‘Oh, you have a tattoo, you can pay,’” said Vanessa Hernandez, a co-author of the report. “Or, ‘Why don’t you just mow some lawns?’ There’s not a specific enough standard for whether they have the ability to pay.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/12/debtors-prisons-report_n_4768320.html

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February 13, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment