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Seattle Lawyer-Photographer Calls Attention To Debilitating Post-Prison Debt

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Next week, Washington Governor Jay Inslee is expected to take action on a bill that would ease some of the financial burdens faced by people leaving prison. Often, those people enter civilian life thousands of dollars in debt due to court costs and interest.

It’s an issue that Gonzaga Law School is highlighting with a new photo exhibit. Seattle lawyer Deborah Espinosa calls her exhibit “Living with Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington.”

She tells the stories of people who serve their time, re-enter society and try to play by the rules, only to struggle with LFOs. That’s legal parlance for legal financial obligations.

“They are fines, fees and costs and what’s called ‘victim’s restitution’, that courts across Washington state impose upon people at the time of a criminal sentence,” Espinosa said.

She says some of those charges are imposed by counties as a way to raise money to fund their criminal justice systems. Some are required by the state.

“There is a requirement that every single person at the time of, I think it’s conviction, they have to have a DNA test of $100, even though the state may already have their DNA from a prior conviction,” Espinosa said.

Espinosa says the average amount imposed on a defendant in Washington’s Superior Courts is about $2,750, with 12% interest charged as long as the debt is unpaid.

The bill approved this year would eliminate some of that interest. It allows judges not to impose fees on defendants who clearly cannot pay them. And it forbids the courts from imposing those costs for DNA tests if the state already has a DNA sample for someone.

Espinosa says people released from prison are often asked within 30 days to begin paying their obligations.

“But for someone coming out of prison, it’s very, very difficult to find a job beyond minimum wage. You’re lucky if you can find a minimum wage job. It’s very difficult to find housing. It’s difficult to be stable," she said. "In many circumstances, people have addiction-related issues and, of course once they come out, there’s a lot of fear, a lot of uncertainty.”

She says part of that is due to the possibility that, in some counties, they can be re-arrested if they fall behind in their payment schedules.

“We have one person who is part of the project: single mom, doesn’t even know she has to pay her LFOs. She gets picked up for failure to pay and she’s in jail for 58 days. Those 58 days, what happens? She loses custody of her two children, who are in elementary school. She loses her Section 8 housing. And she loses her part-time job, that was a really good job. And she went back into her addiction,” Espinosa said.

Espinosa’s exhibit will be on display at Gonzaga Law School until the end of spring semester.