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Washington gets federal dollars to work on solution for 'debtors prisons'

A pilot project coming to Washington aims to bring an end to modern-day "debtors prisons."

Past offenders can end up back in jail if they can't pay their legal fees and fines on time. The problem disproportionately affects people of color, according to the Department of Justice.

So, the DOJ is giving Washington nearly $500,000 to help come up with a solution. The department has offered the grant to Washington and four other states.

The idea: Create a fee calculator that will determine people's ability to pay their debts. Two courts in Washington will test it out, including the Edmonds Municipal Court and one superior court in the state.

The ACLU of Washington has been pushing for equity when it comes to legal fines, according to spokesperson Doug Honig.

Honig: "Hopefully this grant will help the judges make individual calculations that really meets what a person can potentially pay."

California, Louisiana, Texas and Missouri were also chosen for the federal grant.

In Washington, legal costs add up. The state has the highest interest rate in the nation for unpaid legal fees at 12 percent.

The issue recently came to a head in Benton County. The county settled a lawsuit in June over accusations that it imposed court fees in unconstitutional ways.

U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes says the grant is “an excellent step in assisting the Washington state court system to ensure the enforcement of fines and fees is done in a way that is fair to all.”