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Poor People Locked Up…For Being Poor

The U.S. Is Locking People Up For Being Poor

Virginia Dickerson says she’s devoted the last three years to recovering from the drug problems that entangled her in the criminal justice system throughout her teens and 20s. Now in her mid-30s, she’s been out of prison for more than a year, working 30 hours a week as a cook and server at a restaurant in Richland, Wash. She says she’s also looking for a full-time job, and volunteering for two organizations that help people overcome addictions and a third that provides arts programs to teens.

Still, if she fails to pay off the $8,000 in fines that she still owes county courts in southern Washington as a result of her arrests several years ago, she could end up right back in jail. District and Superior courts in Benton County ordered her to pay a total of $130 a month toward fines and fees stemming from two drug arrests in 2010 and 2011, one for possession of methamphetamines and the other for delivery. Dickerson was fined about $6,000 for her two drug charges, but has accrued about $2,000 in interest.

“I’ve done my time, and I’m doing anything in my power to clean up the wreckage of my past,” Dickerson said. “But I can’t pay the amount they want me to pay.”

In recent years, local governments throughout the United States have locked up growing numbers of people for failing to pay their legal debts. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice released a pair of wide-ranging reports on the practice in 2010.

Now, a new report takes a closer look at the emergence of modern-day "debtors' prisons” in Washington state, specifically. People throughout the state are often sent to jail because they can’t afford to pay the heavy fines and legal fees issued by county courts, says the report, released Monday by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services.

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