Getting out of prison is a chance to make a fresh start. But people who’ve paid their debt to society often find there’s another debt hanging over their heads. And that can be a huge hindrance to getting life back on track.
It’s called a legal financial obligation, or LFO. These are fees imposed on criminal defendants. Some help pay for running the court. Some are for restitution to the victim. Some are simply for punishment.
Even when LFOs start out as a few hundred dollars, they can balloon into the thousands, thanks to double-digit interest rates.
Cynthia Brady, 58, from Bremerton is working to pay down about $1,000 in legal debts. A friend of hers had a much higher bill.
“She owed like, close to $80,000 in Kitsap County,” Brady said.
Now, imagine someone comes along and knocks that debt down to an amount you can actually afford. This is what happened in September 2019, when hundreds of people, including Brady, showed up at a Tacoma courtroom.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Michael Schwartz was one of a few judges plowing through hundreds of cases, reducing the fines that people had to pay. The line of people stretched down a long hallway.
“I think it’s a great thing to give people the opportunity to get a head start to their re-entry into the community," Schwartz said. "These types of legal financial obligations can prevent people from renting an apartment, from getting a job, from getting credit to get a use of a car, all of those kinds of things.”
In this story, Sound Effect explores how this debt-relief event came to be, and what it means for the people being helped.