Today Columbia Legal Services and the ACLU of Washington issued a blistering report on the ways court-imposed debts unfairly victimize poor people in Washington. Titled “Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons”, the report, according to a joint press release from Columbia Legal Services and the ACLU, “documents how policies and practices for imposing and collecting these debts keep impoverished people trapped in poverty.”
According to the press release: “The report focuses on the state’s system of Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) – fees, fines, costs and restitution imposed by courts on top of criminal sentences. The debts accrue interest at an exorbitant rate of 12% a year and can amount to a lifetime sentence for someone without the means to pay them off. In some instances, the expense of running the system costs a county more than the debts it collects.”
Focusing on four Washington counties - Benton, Clark, Clallam, and Thurston - the report details a number of key findings, including:
·Courts impose discretionary LFOs without considering a person’s present or future ability to pay.
·Courts incarcerate people for failure to pay even when they are destitute.
·Courts require individuals to transfer public payments for subsistence to pay off court debts, to the detriment of personal and family welfare.
·While state law says restitution payments to victims should take precedence, county clerks’ offices garner collection fees prior to paying restitution.
·Courts fail to notify debtors of their legal right to be represented by counsel.
Perhaps most compelling, the report includes profiles of five Washingtonians who’ve been unfairly burdened by the state’s LFO system. Among them is David Ramirez, who pleaded guilty in 2003 to residential burglary after entering the home of his ex-wife without permission. Despite having a clean record for the last ten years, according to the report LFOs “continue to haunt him. “ The report indicates that Ramirez was ordered to pay $2144 in restitution and over $1147 in penalties and costs.
“I wasn’t making much money at the time, maybe earning about $10 an hour. I also had to pay $500 per month in child support. So money was very, very tight,” Ramirez says in the report. “If you miss payments, they can issue a warrant for your arrest. ... To get the warrant removed, you have to pay the entire amount you owe, plus an extra $100 warrant fee.”
The report indicates the Ramirez had a warrant issued in 2008, and was told he needed to pay $800 to get it removed.
“I didn’t have that kind of money, and they wouldn’t take a partial payment. So I basically lived in fear of arrest for a year until a lawyer in my church agreed to help me negotiate a lower payment to quash the warrant,” Ramirez says.
According to ACLU of Washington spokesperson Doug Honig, the report focused on Benton, Clark, Clallam, and Thurston counties because the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services “had already received multiple complaints about their practices.” While not every county in Washington engages in the dubious LFO practices, according to Honig, other counties outside of Benton, CLark, Clallam and Thurston certainly do. Honig says the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services “are not asserting these four are necessarily the worst [counties] in our state.”
Honig says the study that generated the report lasted from May through November of 2013. You can see the entire report for yourself below.
According to the press release, the recently introduced HB 2751 could help solve the problem. Sponsored by Rep. Mary Helen Roberts (D - Edmonds), HB 2751, as described by the ACLU, would end the incarceration of those unable to pay LFO debt, require courts to consider an individual’s income before imposing court costs or fees, would allow courts to waive any fines and fees if payment could cause undue hardship to the defendant, and require that no court collections fees be paid before restitution payments to victims are paid off. The bill would also reduce the 12% interest rate and suspend interest while a person is incarcerated.