Like many others before her, Marisa Berner said her path into the criminal legal system was inextricably linked to mental illness and addiction.

Berner, 32, said after surviving early childhood trauma, she began using drugs and alcohol at 14.

She said she struggled with addiction between the ages of 16 and 28. Beginning at 17, she became court-involved and then was arrested repeatedly over the course of her early adulthood, with convictions for crimes like drug possession and theft.

In 2018, she said she was able to get sober and rededicated herself to getting her life back on track. She has been mostly successful in doing so, with one big exception: She can’t afford to pay the legal financial obligations — also called monetary sanctions — that accompanied her convictions.

During the times she was arrested, Berner said she was mostly homeless, sometimes living in a school bus. While her outstanding legal debt of around $1,400 might not seem daunting to some, it’s huge for her.

“It just feels insurmountable,” Berner said. In addition to the fees themselves, Berner said she was told that costs for a lawyer would be around $1,500 per court, so in her case, around $4,500 on top of her legal debt. 

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In her current financial situation and amid the region’s high cost of living, she is barely able to pay rent as a single parent and sometimes struggles with food insecurity as well. 

It’s this “revolving door” of legal debt, poverty and criminalization that Berner testified before the Legislature to change.

In early February, Berner spoke in support of House Bill 1412, which is currently making its way through the Legislature. The bill is designed to allow judicial discretion post-sentencing to waive or reduce fines and fees associated with felonies and misdemeanors based on a person’s ability to pay, and would allow judges to waive the 12% interest charged on restitution. In addition, the bill would allow judges to waive restitution fines in the case of fines owed to a corporation. 

The current system of fines and fees has created an albatross around the necks of the state’s lowest income residents.

Alexes Harris, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, wrote about monetary sanctions in her 2016 book, “A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as a Punishment for the Poor.”

Harris said that, like much of the criminal legal system, monetary sanctions fall into two tiers: “People who can pay are paying, and people who can’t are not.”

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Alexes Harris, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, says people who have outstanding fines and fees for criminal convictions are disproportionately Black, Latino and Indigenous and low income. She is in favor of allowing judicial discretion to waive or reduce such fines and fees, based on a person’s ability to pay. (Courtesy of Alexes Harris)
Alexes Harris, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, says people who have outstanding fines and fees for criminal convictions are disproportionately Black, Latino and Indigenous and low income. She is in favor of allowing judicial discretion to waive or reduce such fines and fees, based on a person’s ability to pay. (Courtesy of Alexes Harris)

As she wrote in an op-ed about the issue, monetary sanctions affect “individuals’ abilities to attain wealth, educational certification and degrees, maintain stable and safe housing, build credit and wealth, and even affect abilities to sustain employment. People can lose their driver’s licenses as well.”

According to her research and testimony she submitted to the Legislature, about 70% of people are not able to pay the Victim Penalty Assessments, or VPAs, and owe an average of $854 per person in VPA fees, which are one type of a multitude of fines and fees.

While the name “VPA” sounds like it’s solely a victims compensation fund, it’s important to understand that the VPA is charged for every felony and misdemeanor. So if you were convicted of selling drugs, for example, the fee would go back to programs in local prosecutors’ offices, according to Nick Allen of Columbia Legal Services.

Harris said people who have outstanding fines and fees are disproportionately Black, Latino and Indigenous, and low income. In her submitted testimony, she said of the 70% of people who are unable to pay monetary sanctions in general, they are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, houseless and often struggle with disabilities and mental illness.

“$20 a month might be nothing for people who are middle class, but it means a lot if you have a family and you’re unemployed or you’re poor, particularly in COVID times,” Harris said. She said people are making tough choices between paying for medications or utilities and paying monetary sanctions.

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Harris sees a strong link between the history of enslavement of Black people, the Black Codes of the 1800s, which used the law to force Black people into unpaid labor by criminalizing vagrancy and other arbitrary transgressions, and the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery but allowed forced labor for those convicted of a crime.

These institutions leveraged the criminalization of Black people to re-create slavery under another name and generate wealth for the state and private entities on the backs of Black people.

“Monetary sanctions are a contemporary iteration” of this phenomenon, Harris said, “where not only your labor that you do today is owed to the state and private entities … but your future labor — and most likely with interest and prepayment penalties — is owed to the state.”

Breaking the cycle of poverty the sanctions create for those who can’t pay is an important part of dismantling the criminal legal system as it exists now, she said.

Fundamentally, Harris said, the issue comes down to who gets to be redeemed.   

“There’s always been people … who are deemed worthy and undeserving,” Harris said. “And so the criminal legal system developed a system of monetary sanctions and people with wealth are redeemed. They can pay, wash their hands and move forward. And they’re worthy of redemption, but people who are poor are not right, solely because they’re poor. They are unredeemable.”

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Berner, meanwhile, still has the weight of her legal financial obligations hanging over her head. She would like to get her own apartment but her record has been a barrier.

But Berner has found a way to put her experiences to use to help others. She is working in a certified peer support role to help others struggling with addiction and mental illness.

“For me to get everything together and feel like I’m making a difference, getting my peer support certification has really been powerful and it seems like something that’s changing our state,” Berner said. “People who are working with people with mental illnesses and substance addiction, the people that know those people best are the people who have been through that situation.”