When Jennifer Pena first got sober in 2007, she spent around $15,000 in student loans attempting to pay off fines from criminal convictions racked up during her struggles with addiction.
She’s incurred more fines, and other convictions, since then during relapses, but some of the original debt still follows her. Between King and Snohomish counties, Pena estimates she currently owes $12,000.
Just this month, she had to appear in court to answer for some of it. Now sober, Pena is living in one of Seattle’s tiny house villages for people experiencing homelessness, and paying off the debt remains a distant prospect.
“When I saw the letter for a court date coming up I was terrified, because I’m way past due and I don’t have the ways and means to bring it up to date right now,” said Pena, 42.
The state Legislature last year sought to blunt the prospect of court fines becoming a debtors’ prison for low-income defendants like Pena. They waived the state’s unusually-high 12% annual interest rate on court debt that doesn’t involve restitution and banned courts from punishing, including jailing, defendants who are too poor to pay fines.
However, new research from the University of Washington and interviews with attorneys serving low-income clients suggest the Legislature’s attempts to reform court debt haven’t made a fundamental difference, including for people experiencing homelessness.
The UW study, published last month, found more than a third of 101 participants living in city-sanctioned encampments reported court debt, and the debts were the only self-reported factor associated with a longer duration of homelessness. The study wasn’t able to determine whether debt drove homelessness or homelessness drove debt.
The median debt reported was $3,000, but eight respondents said they owed over $10,000. Only eight of the 38 with debt said they had ever made a payment on it.
In King County Superior Court, non-restitution interest due totaled over $51.3 million as of May 2018, a week before the law went in to effect. A year later, it sits at over $51.1 million, having only dropped by $217,000.
Tethered to the court
There are four types of court-imposed fees: restitution to victims, mandatory fees associated with any conviction, fines set for specific offense and costs related to going through the justice system that judges can choose to impose. Interest used to accumulate on all four, but now only applies to restitution.
When the Legislature considered court debt, advocates argued overwhelming fines hobbled former inmates’ ability to successfully reenter society, with high interest preventing any chance of escape.
But the debate also spotlighted how reliant counties and the criminal justice system were on revenue from court debt. The state estimated counties’ total loss at close to $5 million by 2024, although the Legislature allocated money to offset predicted losses in funding to local courts.
Vanessa Hernandez, director of advocacy at Northwest Justice Project, Washington’s largest publicly funded legal aid program, said court fines, officially called legal financial obligations (LFO), are a barrier to accessing housing, jobs and stability. Convictions cannot be removed from someone’s record until LFOs are paid, and if sent to collection, the debts can damage credit.
Under the new law, courts aren’t allowed to penalize defendants unable to pay LFOs. However, establishing that requires a court appearance, which can be difficult for people experiencing homelessness who don’t have an address to receive court summons.
As a result, Hernandez says even with the new law some of their clients have faced warrants for their arrest. “They’re still caught up in that cycle of arrest and court appearance,” Hernandez said.
Tim Murphy, a Vancouver, Washington, -based Northwest Justice Project attorney, said around two-thirds of his cases involve addressing LFO debt. In some cases, he’s seen homelessness-related LFO debt holding people back from finding housing.
One key reform was removing Washington’s 12% interest rate, one of the highest nationally, on fees besides restitution to crime victims. Between 2009-2014, total statewide interest averaged close to $12.5 million annually.
The law also allows people to waive debt accumulated before the law went in to effect. Doing so, however, requires petitioning the court, and knowing it’s even an option.
Despite her recent court appearance, Pena had no idea she could waive back interest until told by a reporter.
Without the right to an attorney’s assistance, Prachi Dave, senior attorney at the Public Defender Association, said it is difficult for people to figure out what information they need, how to file it with the court and schedule a court date, and then appear during business hours.
Judges in Seattle and King County have generally waived nonmandatory LFOs since before the new law.
However, even with the new law, two fees still required for every felony case: a $100 fee for DNA collection on a first offense and $500 victim assessment, applied to prosecutors’ victim services. Misdemeanor victim assessments run $250 per case.
However, there is “an unspoken truth” in court, said Adrien Leavitt, a King County public defender, whose clients are mostly experiencing homelessness: “We all know people aren’t going to pay.”
“Light at the end of the tunnel”
The line at the Kitsap County courthouse stretched around the block as people waited to address their debt at a one-stop “reconsideration day” one day this spring. Afterward, some cried and compared it to Christmas morning.
“People felt like they finally had a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Civil Survival Project director Tarra Simmons.
Between two “reconsideration days,” 1,200 people waived over $5 million, Simmons estimates.
For Pena, who just moved into the city’s Northlake tiny-house village in Wallingford a month ago, there are more pressing concerns than paying her LFO debt.
“It’s something I don’t even really want to look at right now because I’m not in the position to do anything about it,” she said. “I’m just trying to get other areas of my life back in order.”
In the meantime, her debts will be waiting.