Some 1,700 misdemeanor defendants will not have to do jail or work crew time in Benton County for failing to pay court-mandated fees related to crimes they've committed.

9 months ago, a West Richland resident, Jayne Fuentes, and two other defendants, sued the county with help from the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming the county was acting unconstitutionally in jailing people who failed to pay or skipped on their court mandated fines and fees.

These convicted criminals were given various fines and fees, and required to pay. Judges said they were given at least three opportunities to tell the court about their financial situations, and attempt to work out payment plans. The judges said often, amounts were adjusted to help the citizens, especially if they showed consistent efforts to pay despite financial hardships.

But if they ignored the schedules, failed to maintain their payment programs, or just skipped them altogether, many of them were incarcerated or placed on crews to help work off their fines. The time-for-fines program as it was known, was justified by state laws which allow people guilty of misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors to be jailed or put on crews to work off their debt.

However, the ACLU successfully settled the suit, and this week is finalizing a plan that will drop this policy with the county. According to sources, most counties in Washington state refer such defendants to collection agencies, but their success rates are mixed in recovering monies.

The ACLU claimed Benton County was running a 'debtors prison' and the policy prevented defendants from keeping jobs and rebuilding their lives because they often ended up in jail.

So now, Benton County has quashed, or lifted, all warrants for people wanted only for failure to pay court fines and fees, and has released those in jail just for financial reasons. In addition to some 1,700 cases afffected, Fuentes and the two other defendants were awarded $1,000 each in the suit.

The estimated financial loss in fines and fees to the county if the 1,700 don't pay was not disclosed. Now District Court judges must ask the defendant their financial situation, and if it's deemed to be unworkable, they cannot be jailed for their inability to pay.

Those against the lawsuit said there still needs to be an effort to make sure people are utilizing the resources available and working with the court in the event they cannot afford their fees, as opposed to just ignoring them and getting away with it.

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