Legal Financial Obligations: Understanding the Impact and Developing an Advocacy Strategy
Like most states, when a person is convicted of a crime in Washington, they are assessed fines and fees. These Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) include a victim penalty assessment (VPA), court costs, drug funds, emergency response expenses, DNA collection fees, court-appointed attorney fees and the cost of defense. In every case, the court must impose the $500 VPA and $100 to collect DNA. The average imposed is much higher than this, with a statewide mean average of $2,540. Once imposed, LFOs begin accruing interest at 12|PERCENT|, which may only be reduced as “an incentive for the offender to meet his or her legal financial obligations.” While LFOs are outstanding, clerks may impose a “collection fee”. For people who are unable to pay the LFOs, the additional collection fees and compounding interest make satisfying the payment obligation far more challenging.
Average Amount Owed by Monthly Payment in Five, Ten, Fifteen, and Thirty Years for Average LFO of $2,540
(Which is the mean average for LFOs imposed statewide)
|$10 Payment||$25 Payment||$50 Payment||$100 Payment|
|Debt: Five Years||3,798||2,073||531||Paid: Thirty Months|
|Debt: Ten Years||6,083||2,623||Paid: Seventy-Two Months||0|
|Debt: Fifteen Years||10,234||2,740||0||0|
|Debt: Thirty Years||56,362||3,938||0||0|
Source: Katherine A. Beckett et al., Wash. State Minority And Justice Comm., The Assessment and Consequences of Legal Financial Obligations In Washington State (2008), available at http://www.courts.wa.gov/committee/pdf/2008LFO_report.pdf.
When the Washington Supreme Court commissioned a study on the impact of LFOs on persons of color, they found that LFOs assessed against non-violent drug offenders were actually higher than those who convicted of violent offenses. Likewise, Latino men were generally assessed higher LFOs than other demographic groups. Finally, they found great geographic disparity and discovered that counties with lower populations, higher violent crime rates and smaller fractions of their budgets spent on law and justice assessed higher fines and fees.
The impact of LFOs on reentry is significant. When researchers interviewed persons who had been released from prison who still owed LFOs to the state, they discovered that only 48 percent of them were employed, 26 percent had only a high school diploma or a GED, 26 percent were living in unstable housing and 58 percent were supporting children. In other studies on debt in Washington, researchers found that LFO debt can restrict opportunities and limit access to basic essentials such as housing, education, and economic markets, forcing families “to choose between food, medicine, rent, child support, and legal debt.” The burden of this economic punishment can constrain “daily lives and future life chances” and can in fact lead to increased recidivism.
Creating a criminal justice system that does not discriminate against a person because they are poor helps ensure justice and increases respect for the courts. While LFOs may seem minor to persons who have an ability to pay them and insignificant compared to some of the other consequences that can be imposed on a person who commits a crime, the impact of LFOs can be just as serious as incarceration and the loss of other rights. Defenders should insist that court make true findings with regard to the constitutional question of whether a person will have a future ability to pay and argue against the imposition of LFOs where the future likelihood of being able to repay LFOs is not likely. Courts must be educated on the racial and geographic disparities that are created by the uneven imposition of LFOs and that when they impose additional discretionary LFOs, they are increasing the likelihood that a person will unsuccessfully reintegrate back into society upon release from prison. Courts must also give meaning to the requirement that failure to pay is wilful and not merely a result of economic or other hardships. Finally, our legislatures must reexamine the question of whether imposing LFOs is worthwhile. Given the small amount of money that is actually collected and the question of whether it improves accountability, little reason exists for why mandatory LFOs should continue to be imposed.
As defenders, focusing on the strength of the state’s case and plea bargaining in order to reduce charges and incarceration makes sense. For many of us, the question of fines is secondary to these other important issues. For our clients, successfully reducing LFOs can increase the likelihood that they will remain out of the criminal justice system in the future. We owe our clients the obligation to argue for reductions in LFOs when negotiating with prosecutors and advocating in courtrooms.
Sources and more information on Legal Financial Obligations in Washington State can be found in my recently published article in the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, found at Travis Stearns, “Legal Financial Obligations: Fulfilling the Promise of Gideon by Reducing the Burden,” Seattle Journal for Social Justice 963 (2014).