Ore. city stops jailing poor who can't pay court debts
A new policy also requires the city court to consider defendants' ability to pay and appoint attorneys
PENDLETON, Ore. — The eastern Oregon city of Pendleton has stopped jailing people unable to pay fines, a city official said, following the settlement of a federal lawsuit contending city officials were running a debtors' prison.
The East Oregonian reports in a story on Saturday that city attorney Nancy Kerns said city court officials recently adopted new policies that ban the use of jail time for fines arising from minor violations.
"No person shall be incarcerated for the inability and lack of financial resources to pay financial obligations to the Court, including fines, costs and restitution," the policy states.
The policy also requires the city court to consider defendants' ability to pay and appoint attorneys to indigent defendants who face jail time.
Anglea Minthorn spent nearly two months in jail in 2017 for owing about $1,000.
She sued in early 2018, contending the city was violating the U.S. Constitution by incarcerating a debtor unable to pay the debt.
Minthorn's "experience is not unique," the lawsuit said. "It is a reflection of how defendants operate a modern-day debtors' prison in which people who cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines arising out of minor violations are arrested, incarcerated, and fined further."
The lawsuit described Minthorn as a low-income person with disabilities who struggled to get stable housing, medical care and food. The lawsuit said she was hospitalized for 74 days in 2016 because of stroke-like symptoms.
Minthorn did not contest a 2014 judgment against her and afine for $873. The lawsuit questioned why the amount of that fine later rose to $2,493 with no reason given.
Ultimately, the city settled with Minthorn in April, agreeing to pay her $130,000.
Minthorn received about $80,000. Legal Aid Services of Oregon, a nonprofit civil legal program that provides access to legal help, received $45,000. Some $4,300 went to a trust to administer the settlement payments, and the city received $1,033 for Minthorn's outstanding fines.
"This lawsuit should put all of Oregon on notice to take a look at their practices on this," said Sarah Armstrong of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.