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Court-Ordered Fines Result In Modern-Day Debtors' Prisons, Says ACLU

Paula Wissel
Valerie Bodeau, who was homeless at the time, was jailed for missing payments on $7000 court ordered fines.

A report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Columbia Legal Services claims court imposed fees in Washington state have resulted in modern-day debtors’ prisons.

The report documents cases of people being locked up because they couldn't make payments on their fines.Valerie Bodeau is like those profiled in the report "Modern-Day Debtors' Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor."

She says she's no angel. She began using illegal drugs at a young age. She did three years in a Washington state prison for possession and delivery of meth.

But she’s been out since 2006 and has been doing everything possible to turn her life around.

“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. 

“I was woke up in a park by the police and they asked me for my name and birth date. I was sent to King County where I sat for four days and then transported in custody to Benton County. I sat there for three days, and then they released me," she said.

Now, even with improved financial circumstances, Bodeau is always on alert.

“I can be walking down the street and think, 'Did they not get my payment?'" she said.

The ACLU and Columbia Legal Services don't say people convicted of crimes shouldn’t have to pay restitution and fines. But they are urging the Legislature to have the courts take into account people’s ability to pay Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) and make it illegal to lock someone up simply because they don’t have the money. 

A bill, HB2751, that would address issues with LFOs will have a joint hearing in the state Legislature on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 8 a.m.

Each year, about $29 million in LFOs are collected in courts around the state. About 40 percent of the money goes to crime victims. Most of the rest goes to the state and counties.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.