The Washington Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Spokane case concerning the jailing of people for court debts.
Currently, every person booked into jail for charges stemming from failing to pay court fees, fines or restitution is visited by a county collections clerk.
The clerk asks the prisoner to sign a document promising to make a specific monthly payment and agreeing to serve additional jail time if he or she fails to do so.
Bonne Beavers, an attorney at the Center for Justice, a public-interest law firm in Spokane, said, “By signing these orders, a person is waiving their rights to things that they haven’t done yet.”
Susan Gasch, the appellate attorney taking the case to the Supreme Court, explained that when a person violates parole, which is how the courts categorize a failure to pay court debts, he or she is “entitled by due process to a hearing at which a court should determine at that time if the violation is whether the person has the current ability to pay.”
Jason Wagner, who was booked into Spokane County Jail last month for failing to pay his court debts, signed the document, including a section waiving his right to an attorney. But he said he felt pressured to do so. Other inmates said the same thing.
“If the clerk’s office is explaining legal rights, they are practicing law without a license,” Beavers said. “That’s another issue.”
The case is expected to be heard by the Washington Supreme Court next spring.