By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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“The court is definitely taking steps to address those concerns, and we will continue to be involved in discussions going forward to see that it happens,” said ACLU staff attorney Vanessa Hernandez, who met for 90 minutes Wednesday with Porter to discuss the report.
“What we found there was very encouraging.”
Jail costs related to the program remain a concern for officials of the cities of Sequim and Port Angeles.
Port Angeles City Manager Dan McKeen was scheduled to meet with Porter to discuss the city’s costs related to Porter’s District Court.
Craig Ritchie, Sequim city attorney, said jail costs paid by the city of Sequim for an individual often exceed the amount of the person’s fines.
However, the ACLU said it is more interested in the program’s fairness.
In February, the organization issued a report, “Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People For Being Poor.”
It examined court-debt collection programs such as pay-or-appear, which allows individuals to pay their fines or appear in court on the pay-or-appear calendar to explain why they have not made a payment. Court-imposed debt programs in Clallam, Benton, Clark and Thurston counties were examined.
Under Clallam’s District Court pay-or-appear, if those who are delinquent in paying fines don’t appear in court with an explanation, they can be picked up on a $150 warrant and incarcerated in the Clallam County jail.
Court-imposed debt is also known as a legal financial obligation, referred to by the ACLU as LFOs.
“Through our work, we have discovered that the LFOs and their consequences disproportionately impact the poor and serve as a major barrier to successful rehabilitation and community re-entry,” the ACLU said in a Feb. 4 letter to Porter, who is seeking re-election this November to a fourth four-year term.
Hernandez said the conclusions about Clallam County were based on observing two pay-or-appear District Court calendars, reviewing dockets and jail rosters, and speaking with attorneys.
Clallam’s Superior Court pay-or-appear program was not reviewed.
“It was the District Court program we had received complaints about,” Hernandez said.
“Many of the attorneys had concerns about the program,” saying it was not as productive as it could be and that individuals were not always fully apprised of their rights and options, she said.
Porter’s critics in the 2010 election had said the program creates a kind of debtors’ prison, a 19th-century term for prisons for people who could not pay their fines.
In its two-page correspondence, the ACLU cited concerns that attorneys were not present for Porter’s pay-or-appear calendar to represent defendants and said there was a lack of alternatives for indigent individuals unable to pay their fines.
The organization also said the presence of fine-payers was required in Porter’s court on a monthly basis rather than offering a waiver option and that it was concerned that the community service program was suspended.
“The information they have there is just wrong,” Porter said.
He said attorneys can be present at his pay-or-appear hearings and that defendants who show up are never jailed.
Community service has always been an option, though for about a year that ended Saturday, defendants had to file financial affidavits approved by the court to prove they were unable to pay the fine and only then could do community service, Porter said.
Now, individuals who owe District Court fines can do community service without being approved by Porter as indigent, he said.
Friendship Diversion Services is now checking hours tabulated by offenders to guard against fraud that plagued the program, Porter said.
In addition, in another change that began Saturday, individuals who complete General Educational Development certificates, known as GEDs, will receive credit for up to 200 hours of community service — at $10 an hour, that’s up to $2,000 — that will be applied to their fines.
But Porter said he does not have the authority to waive fees.
Porter is encouraging defense attorneys to account for ability-to-pay in their sentencing negotiations, Hernandez said.
“We think there is additional work to be done there, but we are glad he is addressing it.”
Porter also will issue a one-page flier outlining the options for pay-or-appear, Hernandez said.
“The overarching impression I have is that Judge Porter is committed to administering the program in a way that is fair to individuals and really accounts for the individual’s ability to pay, and that’s exactly what we had hoped,” she said.
Sequim and Port Angeles officials have long expressed concerns about pay-or-appear.
“I’m afraid that it’s frequently like trying to get blood out of a turnip,” Sequim city attorney Ritchie said of jailing people who don’t pay fines.
City jail costs can exceed the amount of the fines, he said.
“The difficulty is that it’s not cost-effective for us to do a pay-or-appear program.”
A potential alternative to jail is a collection company, Ritchie said.
Porter has contended the program has helped create a surplus for District Court.
“We would rather wait and be patient, even if that builds bad stats for the judge,” countered Ritchie.
But Porter said the “fundamental purpose” of pay-or-appear is not to incarcerate or punish but to hold people accountable for their fines.
McKeen said the city is beginning to look at criminal justice costs as officials begin preparing a 2015 budget.
Those costs are escalating at a far higher rate than inflation, he said.
“A significant driver of our criminal justice costs is jail man-days,” McKeen said.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.