Benton County holds you accountable for unpaid fines

Benton County holds you accountable for unpaid fines »Play Video
BENTON COUNTY, Wash. -- On any given day, up to 75 people could be locked up at the Benton County Jail for failing to pay a fine. It's a controversial decision that the county enforces the state law that allows it to lock up low-level criminals for failing to pay up. KEPR asks where Benton County's confidence comes from when this type of punishment is rarely used across the state.

Benton County District Court Judge Katy Butler questions low-level criminals about their unpaid fines daily.

"Why haven't you paid anything here from 2009 to 2014? Five years," asked Butler.

One person blamed her drug addiction. Another said her boyfriend was murdered. Even five years of non-payment gives people another chance.

"It's a system with a lot of forgiveness built in," said Richland Police Department Capt. Mike Cobb.

But, at some point, those chances run out. Low-level offenders are assigned to serve on a work crew or just sit in jail to pay off the money they owe. Most other district courts just send these fines to collections. Judge Butler thinks our system works better.

"I do find it successful," she said.

Benton County uses a credit system. The offenders are credited $50 a day toward their fine to sit in jail, and $80 a day to do work crew, which includes manual labor. A $1,000 fine would take three weeks of straight time in jail or two weeks of work crew to pay off.

But it costs taxpayers money to house those inmates, which makes the system controversial.

KEPR spoke with Richland police, West Richland police, and the Benton County Sheriff's Office about low-level criminals spending time in jail to pay off fines. All three agencies agreed it's a matter of accountability and cost.

"I wish there was a better option, I really do, but unfortunately no one's been able to discover one yet," said Capt. Cobb.

"I think the idea that you could have jail time if you don't pay your fine is an incentive to pay it. And I think that's proven because our county, overall, we are successful in collecting that revenue," said Judge Butler.

Benton County averages about $10 million in fines and infractions paid. Since they've been keeping records, $27 million has gone unpaid, sending non-violent offenders to jail every day.

Benton County says it has no plans to do away with the jail for fines system.