WILLAMETTE WEEK December 15, 2010
Is Washington County part of a national return of jailing people for debt
Winford Parish never imagined his $1,800 in outstanding court debt to Washington County would land him in prison for two years.
In 2007, a judge convicted the 39-year-old man of manufacturing marijuana. Judge Gayle Nachtigal gave him a second chance and suspended his 28-month sentence to five years’ probation.
But on Oct. 25 of this year, sheriff’s deputies hauled him into Judge Kirsten Thompson’s court for consistent failure to pay court-ordered financial obligations as part of his probation.
When the unemployed father told Thompson he could not pay fines for things such as court-appointed attorney fees, prosecutor Jason Weiner told Parish he could have recycled soda cans for money. Parish is now in Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville.
Some say Parish is an extreme example of a judicial practice in Oregon’s second-largest county of leveling court fines and fees against homeless, unemployed and poor people—then incarcerating them when they don’t pay.
“Court fees are crushing people who are already struggling in this economy,” says Dean Smith, Washington County office chief of the nonprofit Metropolitan Public Defenders. “People get on probation that have no hope of meeting the conditions.”
If that all seems straight out of a 19th-century debtor’s prison, there’s an Oct. 3 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that says such practices are increasingly common nationwide and that they violate the U.S. Constitution.
“Day after day, indigent defendants are imprisoned for failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to manage,” according to the report “In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtor’s Prisons.”