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New Washington Law Aims to Ease the Sting of High Court Fees

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Doug Nadvornick/Deborah Espinosa
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050918DN_LFOs.mp3
Doug Nadvornick's report about legal financial obligations (short version).

When you’re convicted of an offense in a Washington courtroom, there can be several penalties. A felony often brings incarceration and some form of victim restitution. Lesser offenses lead to fines. And then, says Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno, there are three required state court fees, known as legal financial obligations.

“Mandatory $500 victim-witness compensation fund. That money goes into a fund and it’s paid out to victims of crime," Moreno said. "The second piece is the filing fee, which in the state of Washington and Spokane County is $200. That’s the cost to file any kind of claim or lawsuit. And there’s a mandatory $100 fee for collecting DNA.”

That’s $800 just in court fees. There are other options available to judges too. For example, they can recover the cost of incarceration or require reimbursement for the costs of a public defender. Add them up and many offenders leave the courtroom thousands of dollars in debt.

Over in the city of Spokane’s municipal court, the fees are a bit different, but the effect is sometimes the same.

“For example, a $250 fine ends up being $990 at the end of it,” said Judge Tracy Staab, who presides over the city of Spokane's DUI court.

As harsh as that may sound, legal financial obligations have a purpose, say Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns and County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald.  

“That $800 goes to pay for programs that are being offered because of something that they did," Kerns said.

“The money is funneled into separate funds. The prosecutor will get funding. The public defender will get funding. The court will get funding. So that money is all costs that are used to run the criminal justice system,” Fitzgerald said.

Critics of Washington’s court system say legal financial obligations, or LFOs for short, carry an exaggerated importance in the Evergreen State. That’s because Washington’s court system is near or at the bottom nationwide in terms of state funding. According to the state courts website, Washington pays for its Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and a percentage of the salaries and benefits of judges in local courts. Local governments are on the hook for the rest. Critics say that’s why some local jurisdictions push the boundaries of LFOs.

The challenge, says Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns, is finding that delicate balance of fair restitution.

“We’re weighing the interests of a victim, but also the offender and we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re burying somebody who’s trying to get back on their feet,” he said.

Critics of LFOs, such as Jefferson Coulter, say the system is unfair to offenders. Coulter is a staff attorney for the Northwest Justice Project in Spokane. He says Washington’s LFO statute is based on a similar law in Oregon.

“But Washington stripped out all the things that would protect poor people,” he said.

For example, offenders pay 12% interest on what they owe and it’s compounded quarterly. That starts from the time the fees are charged and continues even when someone is incarcerated. Critics say the law ensures legal fees can’t be written off even if it’s determined a person will never be able to pay them. They can’t shed their fees even in bankruptcy. And, says Coulter, there’s another provision that makes no sense.

“You have to pay the victims’ penalty assessment regardless of the fact that there’s a victim," he said. "So, for example, you have a substance abuse disorder and you’re caught with oxycodone or whatever one of these opioids are, you have to pay a victim’s penalty assessment for the controlled substances violation even though there’s no victim.”

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Credit Doug Nadvornick/Deborah Espinosa
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Sabrina Ryan owes Washington courts $39,000 in court fees and interest.

One case of the compounding effects of LFOs is Sabrina Ryan. She’s a 40-year-old mother of seven in Spokane.

“When I was 21 years old, I got into an argument with an upstairs neighbor. He had a gun and he dropped it. While we were fighting, I picked it up and tried to shoot him with it. I was arrested and charged with first-degree assault and convicted,” Ryan said.

It was her first conviction. Fearing a long prison term, Ryan took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 9 1/2 years behind bars.

“I had no personal debt prior to my conviction. But when I was convicted, I incurred about $5,000 in various legal fees. None of it was victim restitution. It was all court imposed fines and fees,” she said.

She tried to work off her fines in prison. She says she had some of the best jobs inmates could obtain. Half of her wages went straight to her debts. Eight years later, she was released and she learned that, thanks to her hard work in prison, her financial obligation had more than doubled to $12,000 dollars.

“It blew my mind. It was like, how is that possible? It was supposed to be $5,000,” Ryan said.

So, Ryan was out of prison, but her troubles weren’t over. Within a month of her release, as she tried to find a place to live and a job and to reconnect with her family, she was told she’d have to begin paying her outstanding court fees, more than $200 a month. She didn’t have it, so she was arrested. That set off a period of several years that included drug addiction and more incarceration. Now she has overcome that. She’s married and caring for her family. And her $12,000 debt has ballooned to $39,000, about three-quarters of it interest.

“I can’t buy a house. I can’t buy a car. I have an old minivan that I was able to scrimp and save $900 to buy, but I can’t go get a financed vehicle because I can’t get my credit good enough,” Ryan said.

The concerns expressed by Sabrina Ryan and Jefferson Coulter are shared by people within the system as well. They include Spokane Judge Maryann Moreno.

“You know, that $500 victims fund, it’s a big pool of money and it does go out to pay victims, so I have a hard time with saying they shouldn’t have to pay that, but $500, to you and I might not be a whole heck of a lot of money, but to people who live in their car, they’re never going to have $500,” Moreno said.

That’s why legislators such as Rep Jeff Holy (R-Spokane) have been trying for years to update Washington’s LFO statute. He believes some counties are going beyond what is reasonable.

“You see a couple of things out there that might be not what the legislature intended to have happen that compelled some people to come to us in confidence and explain that these things are going on and this is probably an inappropriate pathway to making everybody whole again,” Holy said.

For the last few years, Holy and Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) sponsored bills that sailed through the state House of Representatives and then died without a vote in the Senate. But Democrats took control of the Senate this year. Holy and Goodman tried again. They built consensus around the bill, with support from conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats. It passed both chambers and was signed into law.

The legislation eliminates that compounding 12% interest rate charged on debts that aren’t directly related to victim restitution. That’s something that everyone we talked with applauded.

Formerly incarcerated people, such as Layne Pavey, advocated for the bill. Pavey created a group known as I Did the Time. She says the new law isn’t perfect, but it’s a step forward. She says it forbids counties from arresting people just because they miss a payment.

“Now they can only be jailed if they have money and they’re not paying," Pavey said. "But typically, we’re creating better processes to get people into the system to start a payment plan, instead of putting them in jail at $130-a-day to the taxpayer.”

The new law also forbids courts from collecting from people who rely on government checks, such as Social Security, to live. It allows counties only to charge offenders once for a DNA test, rather than once for every charge they faced. And the bill allows offenders to ask to convert some of their monetary debt into community service hours.

The new law will take effect on June 7 and the interested parties, including Spokane Municipal Court Judge Tracy Staab, are adjusting to what will be the new reality.

“I think there’s been a huge shift in the general perception in the legal community since the Ferguson (Missouri) matter came about several years ago. The Department of Justice investigated them and found that the city was basically supporting itself financially on the backs of poor people by imposing fines and putting them underwater where there was no hope of ever getting out from underneath it," Staab said. "We all had to step back and take a look at our own processes when that came out and say, are we doing the same thing? Are we doing anything similar?”

She says she will soon go to City Hall and warn leaders that, because of the new law, the city of Spokane will likely see less revenue from legal financial obligations. Commissioner Josh Kerns says he’s also resigned to the fact that the county may lose money.

Meanwhile, the man charged with collecting the debts, County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald, says his office has become more open to new payment options.

“Partial payments are good now," Fitzgerald said. "There used to be a point where, if you didn’t make the payment for the month, we automatically circled it for default. Well, not everyone can make payments during the month, even when you’re a good credit rating. There are some months that are difficult. So now my office accepts partial payments. If you’re making partial payments, you’re showing good faith, you’re trying to make it work and so we will work with you.”

The question is, will people who owe more than they think they’ll ever be able to pay back, be receptive to that? Layne Pavey says the one lesson out of all of this is you can’t ignore your obligations; that’s the one way you might go back to jail.

“There are a lot of people who are just trying to out-run it and many people are afraid of the courthouse. We have a lot of trauma there so there aren’t a lot of people wanting to go to the courthouse,” she said.

One person who is optimistic the new law will help her is Sabrina Ryan. She’s the woman whose LFO grew from $5,000 to $39,000. She’s paying in two counties. Since the vast majority of her debt is interest, she’s working on an option she hopes will eliminate most or all of her debt in Kitsap County by next year.

“And then I’m going to file the paperwork with Spokane County asking that the interest be waived and, at that point, I’ll be down to about $3,000 and I can see that. That gives me some hope. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel for me, that I can get out of debt in a reasonable amount of time," Ryan said. "Like, I might actually be able to send my kids to college.”

Seattle attorney and photographer Deborah Espinosa has written about Sabrina Ryan’s story and that of others like her in a photo exhibit called “Living with Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington.” It was on display in March at Gonzaga Law School. Now you can see the exhibit online at LivingwithConviction.org.

 

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