More than 1,000 people jailed in Spokane County in the past six years for failing to pay court-ordered fines will benefit from a class-action lawsuit that prompted the jail to change policy.
The settlement, valued at about $350,000, applies to all those booked into the jail for what the courts call legal financial obligations – fees, fines and court-ordered restitution that haven’t been paid.
Attorneys for Betty Rucker, the debtor who sued the county on behalf of all inmates who were jailed for delinquent payment of fines between 2008 and 2014, heralded the outcome as a common-sense resolution to a violation of constitutional rights.
The county agreed to the settlement without admitting guilt. Breean Beggs, a candidate for county prosecutor who helped represent Rucker, said policies were changed in the wake of the lawsuit’s filing in 2012.
“Essentially, what we really wanted was the county to stop putting people in jail when it was really clear that they weren’t going to pay,” Beggs said.
As a result of filing the lawsuit, he said, the number of people jailed nightly for failing to pay court-ordered fines dropped from 30 inmates to five, freeing jail beds for other offenders and potentially saving the county millions of dollars.
Mike Patterson, the attorney for Spokane County, said policy changes that resulted from the lawsuit will keep the county from future liability and ensure offenders are treated fairly.
According to her complaint, Rucker was booked into the jail multiple times between 2006 and 2013 for failing to pay restitution from a 2000 forgery case.
Lawyers argued that Rucker was repeatedly denied her right to appear before a judge to plead her case and that the county practice of having jail employees – rather than legally licensed professionals – advise inmates of their rights denied her due process.
“People were waiving these hearings, without really realizing what it was they were waiving,” said Andrew Biviano, who worked on the case with Beggs.
Beggs has made the question of jailing offenders who owe the courts money a campaign issue in his race for prosecutor, saying he’d work to abolish the practice if elected. He said the change in policy was evidence of his efforts to reform the criminal justice system as an outsider.
“Without that lawsuit, there wouldn’t have been a conversation,” Beggs said.
His opponent, Larry Haskell, and others have questioned Beggs on the campaign trail whether his history of suing the county and local law enforcement might hurt his relationship with the county employees.
An attempt to reach Haskell was unsuccessful Wednesday.
The settlement will cost the county the full $350,000 if the 800 or so people eligible for reimbursement agree to the deal. Terms of the settlement require that all money paid to the offenders first go to repaying fines before ending up in their pockets, Biviano said.
Patterson said the settlement includes $190,000 for approximately 800 offenders other than Rucker. The county will use $25,000 of the settlement for a job training program eligible to more than 1,000 offenders. About $135,000 will go to Rucker and her lawyers.
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