Debtors Prisons – Legal Financial Obligations

Just before session started this year I had a chance to attend the Facing Race legislative forum. Hosted by several local and national organizations, it was a chance for me to hear stories and facts about a variety of social justice topics, including Legal Financial Obligations. Some of the repeating themes were how hard it is for indigent people to get out from LFOs after they are released from prison, and how disproportionately people of color are impacted by this system.

LFOs are the fees, fines and costs that people convicted of crimes are charged in addition to their criminal penalties, like jail time. In Washington the average LFO amount is $2,450 and the interest rate on these is 12%. Considering up to 60% of former inmates are still unemployed a year after they get out of jail, requiring them to pay such large fines can put them into a crippling spiral of debt, homelessness, and recidivism.[1]

People who commit crimes should pay for the hurt and damage they caused – hence our criminal justice and prison system. The goal here is to provide a deterrent and take people who are likely to commit new crimes out of circulation. Once they get out of prison, society has a huge interest in encouraging them to get jobs, find housing, support themselves and their children, and in general become contributing citizens. A person with unpayable LFOs can’t achieve any of these things.

There are several other problems with the LFO system. There are a number of disturbing statistics that suggest people of color, who are already disproportionally represented in the criminal justice system (black residents are five times more likely than white residents to be in prison[2]), face unequal levying of fines[3]. This reliance on revenue from fees and fines creates a compromising position for law enforcement – forcing a choice between a just enforcement of the law or raising revenue. I do not want us to land in a situation like that of Ferguson, where a report by the Department of Justice sites high court fines and fees as a contributing factor in the unraveling of the criminal justice system in that city.[4]

Another problem is the sheer un-collectability of the LFOs. Analysis by House staff indicated that 80% or more of these obligations are uncollectible, mostly because the offenders are indigent. It’s also expensive for the government, because once many of the people fail to pay they are thrown back in jail, which costs way more money than the amount of the unpaid fines.

House bill 1390 addresses some of the problems of LFOs. The bill stops collecting usurious interest on non-restitution portions of LFOs, and ensures that courts can’t impose costs on defendants who are indigent at the time of sentencing. A lot of these court costs were created in an effort to keep the court system whole in times of shrinking state support, and in hindsight were a bad decision.

The bill passed out of the House on Monday with only 4 nay votes. It’s now sitting in the Senate’s Law and Justice committee. I sincerely hope they follow their House colleagues and take this reasonable step to reduce recidivism and help people put their lives back together.  I encourage you to read this report by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services on how a broken LFO system has created modern day debtor’s prisons. And as always, thanks for the thoughtful feedback on this issue that several of you sent in to my office.

[1] ACLU of WA-Columbia Legal Services Report: “Modern Day Debtor’s Prisons,

[2] Budget & Policy analysis of data from 2012 ACS 3yr data and Washington State Department of Corrections Fact Card, June 2014; http://www.doc.wa.gov/aboutdoc/docs/msFactCard_000.pdf

[3] “Latino defendants face significantly higher fines than white defendants, even after the seriousness of the offense and offender’s record are taken into account.” Washington State Minority and Justice Commission, “The Assessment and Consequences of Legal Financial Obligations in Washington State,” August 2008

[4] Ferguson Report: Former Officer Won’t Face Civil Rights Charges, NPR March 2015

About the Author

Ross
I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.

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