Does our system of imposing legal financial obligations with a high interest rate help get ex-offenders back into a productive life. The answer is, no.

Share story

IMAGINE that you can’t get a job or apartment because of a criminal conviction. The legal financial obligations (LFOs) that you owe as part of your sentence remain unpaid, making matters worse. A background check shows not just your conviction, but that your case is still active because of the unpaid LFOs. And the unpaid LFOs have ruined your credit, making housing harder to find, even if you could afford the rent.

Now there is a warrant for your arrest for the unpaid LFOs. If you are picked up and jailed, you will miss your job interview, lose your temporary housing and possibly custody of your children.

These are common consequences for people with LFOs, who are too poor to pay.

In Washington, superior court judges at sentencing are required to order a $500 victim penalty, $100 DNA fee and any restitution. This debt accrues interest at 12 percent. There are many more LFOs that judges can but are not required to impose.

The LFOs ordered in criminal cases in superior courts averaged $995 statewide between 2010 and 2012. That is a huge sum for poor defendants. Paying $20 monthly with the collection surcharge, the debt after three years would still be $797.

The amount of LFO debt per case varies widely across courts. The average in King County Superior Court is $600 (the mandatory amount) but is $7,000 in Whitman County, according to a state Minority and Justice Commission report.

Adding insult to injury, LFO debt itself is disproportionately imposed. A recent Minority and Justice Commission study shows that Hispanic males incur higher LFOs per case than white males.

What led to this?

Mass incarceration played a part. Prison populations have increased exponentially. Today, there are nearly 6 million people in the United States with felony convictions. With those convictions come LFOs.

Part of the problem is how we fund trial courts. Washington places dead last in the nation for state funding of trial courts. Some counties expect trial courts to self-fund through LFO collection. This is not an issue confined to Ferguson, Mo.

While some courts, like King County Superior Court, do not use jail to collect non-restitution LFOs, other courts do. That raises the question whether high LFOs make financial sense. Studies from other states show that often more taxpayer money is spent enforcing LFOs than is collected. To ascertain the true cost of our LFO system — including enforcement hearings, warrants, jail — we at the Superior Court Judges Association and the Minority and Justice Commission are planning a study comparing costs with revenue.

As a society, we must ask whether high LFOs make sense in terms of getting ex-offenders back into a productive life. Do excessive LFOs have unintended consequences that interfere with re-entry?

The equity issue with LFOs is obvious. Poor defendants drag high LFO debt around like a ball and chain. Wealthier defendants can just write a check.

Modest reforms to LFO law are being considered by the state Legislature right now. ESSHB 1390, sponsored by state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, recently passed unanimously in the House and is now awaiting a hearing in the Senate Law and Justice Committee. ESSHB 1390 would eliminate the current 12 percent interest rate on non-restitution LFOs, allow conversion of more LFOs to community restitution, provide due-process standards for using jail to collect LFOs, and prioritize payment of restitution to victims.

Now is the time to address this issue that impacts so many lives and tarnishes our criminal justice system.