Resource: Fuentes v. Benton County

By: Fines & Fees Justice Center

October 19, 2015

Fines & Fees Justice Center

This case challenged Benton County, Washington’s practice of incarcerating indigent defendants for failure to pay court fines and fees without any inquiry into their financial status or ability to pay. People were offered three options: to pay their “legal financial obligations” immediately; be incarcerated; or participate on a work crew. The County actually received more money through incarceration of individuals than through its collection efforts. Local cities paid the County approximately $70 for each day of incarceration while individuals sat out their debt in jail at $25/day. Further, placing individuals on the work crew cut costs for the City because they eliminated the need to hire for janitorial and landscaping services. A warrant was issued when a person failed to appear at a debt proceeding and immediately after a period of nonpayment. When the warrant was issued, the person had to pay $100 to schedule a hearing to explain the reasons for nonpayment or nonappearance; there was no pre-warrant hearing. No meaningful assistance of counsel was provided, and the public defender program was severely underfunded.