Washington Governor Signs Bill that Reduces Harsh Impacts of Criminal Debt on Defendants Living in Poverty

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

On March 27, 2018, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law a bill (HB 1783), which helps address Washington State’s broken system for imposing and collecting legal financial obligations (LFOs) from people too poor to pay.

“This law ensures a person’s ability to pay is considered when LFOs are imposed, and enables people with limited resources who have served their time to move on with their lives,” said Prachi Dave, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Washington. “No one should serve jail time simply because they are too poor to pay a fine or fee.”

Over the years, Washington’s LFO system has created substantial burdens for people with criminal convictions who lack the ability to pay the fines, fees, costs, and restitution imposed by judges when people are found guilty of crimes. This legal debt becomes part of the person’s sentence and is a major barrier to successful community reentry, especially for those who lack the resources to pay.

“Washington State has been highlighted nationally as having a particularly harsh LFO system, especially for its impact on persons who are indigent or otherwise lack the ability to pay,” said Nick Allen, directing attorney at Columbia Legal Services. “LFO policies criminalize poverty, because failure to pay can result in arrest and additional incarceration, and ever-growing legal debts, which hurt families and communities. This bill moves Washington in the right direction on criminal debt reform by addressing some of those harsh consequences and will hopefully improve the lives and reintegration efforts of poor persons with LFOs.”

HB 1783 includes a number of reforms that will begin to address many of the problems that LFOs create for people living in poverty, including:

  • Ending the practice of jailing people who are unable to pay LFOs: The law clarifies that a court cannot jail a person who fails to pay LFOs unless the failure to pay is willful. People who are homeless or mentally ill cannot be found to have willfully failed to pay.
  • Clearer Standards for Indigence and Ability to Pay: Judges will no longer be allowed to impose certain costs on defendants, such as the cost for his of his or public defender if they meet certain income requirements created by the bill that render the individual indigent.
  • Reducing the Number of Mandatory LFOs: Many mandatory LFOs become discretionary, meaning the court can waive them upon a finding of indigence.
  • Elimination of Interest: The State can no longer charge a 12% interest penalty on fees, fines, and costs.
  • Community Service Creation: Several provisions allow for the court to convert some LFOs to community service if the defendant is too poor to pay.
  • Protecting Public Assistance: The bill prohibits forced collection of funds received from needs-based public assistance programs.

Additionally, the bill prioritizes victim restitution by clarifying that this obligation must be paid out before any other LFOs when an LFO payment is submitted.

Community advocates, including the ACLU-WA, Columbia Legal Services, and the Statewide Poverty Action Network (Poverty Action), have been seeking changes to the LFO system for the past several years, recognizing that the current system disproportionately impacted poor defendants and communities of color and that these policies neither promoted second chances and effective community reentry nor increased community safety.

However, people affected by LFOs made this victory possible. By sharing their stories and tirelessly working to change the system, they influenced lawmakers and educated the broader community about the harms caused by LFOs and mass incarceration generally, which disproportionately affects poor people and people of color.

“Community members repeatedly expressed how this broken LFO system made it difficult to support the needs of their families and led to a feeling of hopelessness,” said Marcy Bowers, executive director of Poverty Action. “With this law, previously incarcerated people will be better able to meet their basic needs, provide for their families, and successfully re-enter their communities. Poverty should never be the determining factor for whether a person will be successful or unsuccessful after a criminal conviction.”

ACLU-WA, Columbia Legal Services, and Poverty Action commend the legislature for comprehensively addressing this important issue and for their leadership and dedication to reforming the legal financial obligation system, especially the legislation’s prime sponsor, Representative Jeff Holy (R-Cheney) and other champions, including Representative Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) and Senators Jeannie Darneille (D-Tacoma) and Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle).

“We hope this is the start of a thorough review of policies and practices that have counterproductive results for people with criminal records in Washington State,” Allen added. These significant changes mean relief for thousands of Washingtonians struggling with criminal legal debt. These reforms will better allow people to come back to their communities after serving time in jail or prison to rebuild and take responsibility for their lives. Washington is better off when it takes this approach to reentry.”

ACLU-WA, Columbia Legal Services, and Poverty Action offer thanks to the many community groups who worked for the passage of the new law, including the Admin. Office of the Courts & Board for Judicial Administration, Anti-Defamation League, Catholic Community Services, City of Seattle, Civil Survival, Faith Action Network, I Did The Time, Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, King County, Pioneer Human Services, SEIU Healthcare 1199 NW, Superior Court Judges Association, United Way of King County and United Way of Pacific Northwest, Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Washington Coalition of Crime Victim Advocates, Washington Defender Association, Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, Washington State Catholic Conference, Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Washington Statewide Reentry Council, Washington Public Employees Association, Washington State Psychiatric Association, and Quaker Voice on Washington Public Policy.

For comprehensive information about the impacts of LFOs, see Modern-Day Debtors Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor, a report issued by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services: https://www.aclu-wa.org/docs/modern-day-debtors-prisons-washington.

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