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Modern-Day Debtors Prison Target Of Bill In Wash. Legislature

Justin Steyer

Paying off court fees and fines is a major hurdle for someone getting out of prison in Washington state. Some say these Legal Financial Obligations, or LFO’s as they’re called, create a sort of debtor’s prison and make it difficult for former inmates to turn their lives around.

The state legislature is considering changes to how such fees are assessed.

Michele Dovres is a former drug addict who was sent to prison in 2004. Upon her release, she told a legislative committee, she struggled to find work and housing and support her children. On top of that, she says, she tried to make payments on the $1700 dollars in fines she owed, but often  couldn’t.

“I was also always threatened with jail time and going back to prison for my inability to pay,” she said.

And, she says, because of the 12 % interest charged, the amount  eventually doubled. She says for many people like her, trying to restart their lives, the debt can seem insurmountable.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Legal Services released a report last year called “Modern-Day Debtors Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor.”  The ACLU is among the groups pushing for changes by supporting HB1390 in the Washington legislature. The ACLU report includes statistics showing that the court fees fall disproportionately on people of color.

Another group supporting change is the Washington Defender Association. Spokesman Bob Cooper says it’s an issue of fairness.

“These are the same kind of fines and fees that blew things up in Ferguson, Missouri. We need to really take a look at what it is we’re putting on the backs of the people in the criminal justice system,” Cooper said.

Proponents of the legislation say they aren’t saying criminals shouldn’t pay restitution to their victims, which is usually part of the LFO. But, restitution is only one portion of the fines and fees.

People convicted of a crime can be charged for everything from the cost of requesting a jury trial to the fees associated with serving a warrant.

Among other things, the proposed law would give restitution priority so crime victims get paid off first. It would also eliminate the high interest rates on fees other than restitution.

And, perhaps most importantly, it would require judges to take into account someone’s ability to pay and provide a framework for how to do so.

A recent Washington Supreme Court has given this issue extra urgency.In Washington v. Blazina, the court reiterated that judges must find out if someone is indigent before assessing LFOs.

Opposition to the legislation reforming LFOs has surfaced from county clerks, who say rejigging the system could be costly for the court sytem.

"It is not feasible to do this," Ruth Gordon, head of an association of clerks in the state, testified before the Washington Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Trying to separate payment for restitution from payment for other court fees could be a very difficult given current staffing and technology, she said.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.