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New Law That Helps Formerly Jailed People Lower Court-Related Debts Takes Effect Today

Smart Justice Spokane

Today [Thursday] a new law goes into effect in Washington that could lower the debt burdens faced by many formerly incarcerated people.

Last month, we told you about legal financial obligations, or LFOs. Those are the fees imposed by courts on people who are convicted of everything from felonies to traffic tickets. In many cases, defendants are hit with thousands of dollars in charges, everything from court filing costs to crime victim funds to the costs of hiring a public defender.

The new law makes several changes. One of the most significant is that it eliminates the 12% interest regularly added to the balances owed by former offenders. That interest often has taken potentially manageable debts and turned them into albatrosses that some offenders never shed.

At a workshop in Seattle Wednesday, several people who were formerly incarcerated and struggling to pay their debts told their stories to justices of the Washington state Supreme Court.

“I just wanted to start off by saying that, last night I was trying to calculate my fines and I gave up after calculating $50,000 in fines,” said Keshena Williams, who finished her incarceration 11 years ago. She said she’s had trouble regaining her financial footing.

“I’ve literally had job offers and once they did my background check, they pulled the job from me, I’ve been out of prison since 2007. I have not committed any crimes whatsoever. When I try to get a job, the first thing they say is expunge your record, try to expunge your record. We see that you haven’t been in trouble for all this long. But how do you expunge over $50,000 in fines? I’m still trying to figure that out right now.”

Wednesday’s symposium was sponsored by the Supreme Court’s Minority and Justice Commission to review the state’s system of assessing court fees.

“I think it’s important for us to start by recognizing and remembering the event that really triggered this national movement to reform fines and fees across the country," said Cynthia Delostrinos from the state's Administrative Office of the Courts. "On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, just 18 years old, was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.”

That shooting kicked off an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. It found Ferguson’s courts relied too heavily on fines as a way to fund their operations. The department then gave grants to five states, including Washington, to study their own criminal justice systems.

Judges, administrators and others are about 18 months into Washington’s investigation of levying legal financial obligations. One of the preliminary findings is that the state’s system hits blacks and Native Americans harder than other ethnic groups. In general, they’re having a more difficult time paying off their debts.

Nick Allen, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, says the deep dive has taught him that the system of fees, both mandatory and optional, is complicated and not applied consistently from court to court.

“Our subcommittee is comprised of people who have a pretty good understanding of legal financial obligations and even we at times have hit roadblocks in that process," Allen said. "So we can only imagine how difficult and confusing this is for individuals who have legal financial obligations.”

Spokane County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald is the leader of a subcommittee that’s exploring how court systems, such as his, are using these fees. That information, he says, can help judges and administrators re-balance, to make sure that courts recover the money they need without burying people who are trying to re-start their lives.

Judge Linda Coburn in the city of Edmonds’ municipal court has been working with Microsoft to develop an online calculator to help judges determine which fees to impose and how much.

“One concern from many judges when we created this is it going to take away my discretion. It does not take away anybody’s discretion," Coburn said. "It is a tool to help you do what you should already be doing at the bench, but it’s providing that information to you at your fingertips.”
There are other programs aimed at helping people with LFOs.

The court in the city of Tukwila has developed a program to help former offenders regain their drivers’ licenses so they can work and take care of their families. That court is also looking to connect offenders with options as a way to convert some of the monetary debt into community service. Many courts don’t offer that as an option, but Judge Kimberly Walden sees benefits beyond repayment of debts.

“Most of these folks are not able to get jobs because of their criminal history. They’re able to find a place to do community service, they do a good job and, lo and behold, they get hired," Walden said. "So we have a lot of stories associated with that, so we are trying to make sure that our stakeholders understand those mutual benefits of authorizing and allowing for community service.”

In Spokane, social worker Layne Pavey is working to create a community of former offenders to advocate for changes to the criminal justice system. Her group I Did the Time was one of the groups that supported the changes to the legal financial obligation system.

On Wednesday evening, Pavey convened the first of what she expects will be monthly meetings of former offenders, to educate them about the new LFO law. They talked about finding alternatives to incarceration and the need to reform Spokane County’s justice system.

Some who attended talked about their feelings of shame and inferiority as they told stories of their battles with addiction, mental illness and the legal system.

Julie Kelly says she’s battled depression all her life, but lived as a mother and housewife in Ephrata. In 2012, she says she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given medication that set off a three-month spree in which she felt overmedicated and not herself. She began drinking and did something that changed her life.

“One day I went into Walmart and I just filled my cart and pushed it right out the front door and put the stuff in my trunk," Kelly said. "Two days later, the police came to my house. First thing I said was ‘are my kids ok?’ And they said can we look around?

"And they asked, ‘Where’s the stuff you took from Walmart?’ I was like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. They asked ‘can we go out to your car?’ Everything was still in my trunk," she said. "Not only did I not know what I had done, but I didn’t have enough sense to bring it in to my house. They took it all. It was $790 worth of stuff. They took it back to Walmart. I paid restitution, $790, four days later, and they still pressed charges. I ended up with a felony shoplifting. It’s stuck with me since then.”

She lost custody of her children. She spent 12 days in a psychiatric institution. She attempted suicide and racked up $1,500 in court fees. But she also got her meds straightened out and hasn’t had any legal issues since. She moved in with her parents. With their parents’ help, she’s been paying a few bucks a month on her LFOs. With the interest accruing, her bill is now a little more than the $1,500 she started with.

“The crazy thing about my arrest is I’ve never been in a police car. I don’t have a mug shot. I’ve never been in jail, never worn that orange jumpsuit. None of that. It’s just kind of weird how everything happened,” Kelly said.

Now she’s working with Layne Pavey to advocate for formerly incarcerated offenders.

“It sounds dramatic, but it’s changed my life," Kelly said. "These people accepted me when I really didn’t accept myself yet and there was still that shame. And right after that, I also talked in Olympia about LFOs at a special forum that had at 5:30 one night. I’m never going to pay it off with 12% interest, working a minimum wage job. When I did have a good job, I was saving money. I know I’ll have to pay it in one chunk in order to just get rid of it.”

Kelly says the new law and its provision for eliminating the interest on her balance won’t apply to her since her LFO is considered victim restitution, even though the victim is Walmart and she says she returned the merchandise and also paid the value of what she took.  

Today is the first day formerly incarcerated offenders can petition courts to eliminate the interest accrued on their LFOs. For many that’s the majority of their debt, which, at least on a psychological basis, could help to lift some of the burdens they face.