A debtor’s prison of court fines and fees needs to be reformed.
PAYING your debt to society is extraordinarily expensive in Washington.
As part of a criminal conviction, a defendant can be charged for the costs of a jury, of a free legal-aid lawyer, even for the prosecution itself. The bill routinely runs more than $1,000, not counting victim restitution.
A reassessment of those so-called “legal financial obligations” has finally begun. Recently, Washington was in the spotlight at a recent White House summit because it applies one of the nation’s steepest interest rates — 12 percent — from the moment the gavel drops. A majority of states charge zero interest.
A criminal conviction is a debt to society and requires payment. But Washington’s legal financial-obligation system effectively builds a debtors’ prison and should be reformed.
For courts, counties and debt collectors, all of whom stand to benefit from the system, it is a massive business.
There are at least 500,000 legal financial-obligation cases statewide, each with an average bill of more than $1,300, not including restitution, according to Alexes Harris, a University of Washington associate sociology professor and author of the new book “A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor.” King County alone is owed about $250 million in outstanding legal financial obligations.
Recent testimony in the state Legislature, where the debate has also churned for several years, illustrated the consequences for ex-inmates trying to get back on their feet. One man, who faced a $33,000 debt after a 14-year prison sentence, described being eligible only for a car loan at 29 percent interest because of ruined credit. Another man said he had to choose between groceries and a $100 monthly payment.
But legislation to eliminate or even drastically cut the 12 percent interest rate died after debt collectors, who are contracted by counties, and county clerks objected. In theory, interest is supposed to incentivize paying off debt.
Harris’ research shows otherwise. In fact, just a quarter of offenders’ legal financial obligations (LFOs) are ultimately collected. The average payment was $112 a year, barely enough to pay the $100 annual fee charged to defendants to collect the debt. “The interest serves as a disincentive,” Harris said. “It makes them frustrated and angry, knowing they can never get out of the debt.”
Last week, the ACLU of Washington settled a lawsuit with Benton County,including an agreement that defendants would no longer be locked up in jail solely because they didn’t pay their fines. By one count, 28 percent of defendants at the local jail were incarcerated for lack of payment. Literally, a debtors’ prison.
The state Supreme Court is also taking up the issue, setting up it’s own research study. A court commission has proposed a “LFO calculator” intended to help judges determine defendants’ ability to pay — which is currently the law, but routinely not followed — and to flag mandatory and discretionary fines.
Justice should not be free. But it shouldn’t be a prison itself.