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New bill calls to end ‘modern day debtors prison’

Valerie Bodeau told her story of being arrested and jailed for failing to pay legal financial obligations imposed by Benton County following a felony drug conviction. (KIRO Radio/Tim Haeck)

A new report singles out four counties in Washington that are arresting and jailing people who fall behind in the payment of court-ordered debt.

For a felony conviction in Washington, so-called Legal Financial Obligation, or LFO, averages $2,450. And the debts accrue interest.

“When coupled with the 12-percent interest rate, a person making regular payments may be unable to pay off his or her debt after years, or even decades of paying LFOs,” said attorney Nick Allen with Columbia Legal Services in Seattle.

The four counties highlighted in the report issued by Columbia Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington are Benton, Clark, Clallam, and Thurston.

Valerie Bodeau, a drug felon from Benton County and mother of two, was released from prison in 2007. She was assessed court-imposed fees of about $7,000, even though she was homeless and had no job.

“In the time from being released to current, I have had four separate warrants issued for my arrest,” said Bodeau. She has sought help in reducing her LFOs, but says with interest, her court-imposed debt is now about $10,000.

“While the U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed debtors prisons, every day in Washington state people are incarcerated simply because they are too poor to pay,” said Allen.

The report authors endorse a bill (HB 2751) in Olympia that, among other things, would ban the incarceration of people who fail to pay court-ordered fees. The bill would also reduce the 12-percent interest rate and require judges to consider a defendant’s ability to pay when imposing fees and enforcing payment, allowing a judge to waive fines and fees if they would cause undue hardship.

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