A Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons in Washington

Columbia Legal Services (CLS) has been investigating the state’s system of Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) – fees, fines, costs and restitution imposed by courts on top of criminal sentences – and the enormous burden they put on Washington State's poor, fighting to reduce this burden.

Valarie Bodeau understands this burden all too well. Though she served her sentence years ago, LFOs continue to hinder her efforts to move on with her life and raise her two children. Watch the video above to see how CLS is working to reduce the burden of LFOs and help people like Valarie lift themselves out of poverty.

In 2017, we advocated for the LFO reform bill (HB 1783), which would help to reduce the enormous burden LFOs put on people in poverty who are trying to return to their community after serving a criminal sentence. Unfortunately this bill did not go forward. Advocates are continuing to push this work through other avenues.

In February 2014, CLS and the ACLU of Washington issued a report examining LFOs, Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor, which exposes a counterproductive system and calls for reform.

Our joint report describes a debt system that punishes people for their poverty while bringing little benefit to government or the public. At its worst, it results in poor people being locked up because they lack the money to pay off debts imposed by the legal system – creating a modern version of the despised debtors’ prison. The debts accrue interest at an exorbitant rate of 12% a year and may never go away for those without the ability to pay.

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“Washington must create better systems that ensure no person is punished simply because of his poverty while holding accountable people who are able to pay but choose not to. We cannot afford to waste scarce government resources attempting to collect court-ordered debt from those without the resources to pay,” said Nick Allen, a CLS staff attorney with our Institutions Project, who works with the LFO Community Legal Clinic that CLS created to help people who are seeking re-entry, but burdened with LFOs. Nick Allen released a blog post highlighting the challenges those who are transitioning back into society face due to the burden of LFOs.

“Our criminal justice system should help people re-enter their communities, but excessive court-imposed debt is a formidable barrier. Unfair practices keep individuals tethered to the criminal justice system for years, sometimes for life,” said ACLU-WA staff attorney Vanessa Hernandez.

Debtors' prisons are alive and well in Washington State, where people are locked up simply because they cannot pay LFOs.  For many people living in poverty, these debts block them from successfully moving on with their lives.  In July, 2014, Columbia Legal Services held a free, public, panel discussion to engage with experts from the ACLU and the University of Washington on the topic of LFOs and their repercussions on communities. The discussion was moderated by Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu.

Others are taking note. In May 2014, National Public Radio aired several stories, in a series called "Guilty And Charged," about how the poor are paying a high price for court fees, which included a special focus on Benton County. For the report, the ACLU and CLS reviewed state LFO laws and examined practices in four Washington counties including Benton, Clark, Clallam, and Thurston. Among the key findings:

  • Courts impose discretionary LFOs without considering a person’s present or future ability to pay.
  • Courts incarcerate people for failure to pay even when they are destitute.
  • Courts require individuals to transfer public payments for subsistence to pay off court debts, to the detriment of personal and family welfare.
  • While state law says restitution payments to victims should take precedence, county clerks’ offices garner collection fees prior to paying restitution.
  • Courts fail to notify debtors of their legal right to be represented by counsel.

A bill, HB 2751, was introduced in the Washington Legislature’s 2014 legislative session and would have addressed problems with the state’s LFO system. The bill would require courts to consider an individual’s poverty and ability to pay before imposing any court costs or fees and allow courts to waive any fines and fees if payment could cause undue hardship to the defendant. To ensure that LFOs already imposed don’t spiral out of control, the bill reduces the 12% interest rate and suspends interest while a person is incarcerated and unable to earn enough money to pay off the debt. Further, it requires that no court collections fees be paid before restitution payments to victims are satisfied. Even though the bill didn't pass this time around, CLS and others will continue educating elected officials and the public about the consequences of LFOs, with the hopes that comprehensive legislative reform can be achieved next session.

Find out more about Legal Financial Obligations and how CLS is helping:

Media coverage of the report: