Legislature passes bill to bring fairness to Washington’s system of Legal Financial Obligations

News Release: 
Tuesday, March 6, 2018
New law will end modern-day debtors’ prisons in Washington state

The Washington Legislature has passed a bill (E2SHB 1783) which will ensure that poor people are not unfairly jailed or tied for years to the criminal justice system because they are unable to pay court-imposed debts known as Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs). These are fees, fines, costs, and restitution imposed by courts on every person convicted of a crime in Washington.
“This law ensures a person’s ability to pay is considered when LFOs are imposed, and enables people with limited resources who have served their time to move on with their lives,” said Prachi Dave, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Washington. “No one should serve jail time simply because they are too poor to pay a fine or fee.”
People affected by LFOs made this victory possible. By sharing their stories and tirelessly working to change the system, they influenced lawmakers and educated the broader community about the harms caused by LFOs. Partnering with them helps the ACLU to fulfill its commitment to ending mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects poor people and people of color.
Washington’s current LFO system has no guidelines for determining what an individual can reasonably afford to pay. The average LFO in Washington on a single case is $1,128, including misdemeanors. Poor people lack the resources to pay LFOs; according to the Administrative Office of the Courts, only 23.8 percent of LFOs are paid statewide. Even people who are homeless or who rely on public assistance payments to meet basic needs are forced to pay LFOs and interest. As a result, people with limited finances face insurmountable debt and remain tethered to the criminal justice system for years.
And while jail is supposed to be reserved for individuals who willfully refuse to pay, all too often courts have locked up poor people who were simply unable to pay, resulting in modern-day debtors' prisons. In one Washington county, approximately 20 percent of people in custody on a given day were serving time for non-payment of court-imposed debt.
The new law remedies this unfairness by:
  • Ending the practice of jailing people who are unable to pay LFOs
  • Eliminating the current 12 percent interest rate on non-restitution LFOs and stopping interest from accruing while a person is incarcerated 
  • Prioritizing the allocation of LFOs to restitution for victims
  • Setting clear standards for determining a person's ability to pay
  • Prohibiting forced collection of funds received from needs-based public assistance programs
For comprehensive information about the impacts of LFOs, see Modern-Day Debtors Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor, a report issued by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services: https://www.aclu-wa.org/docs/modern-day-debtors-prisons-washington.
The ACLU-WA thanks Rep. Jeff Holy (R-6th), the legislation’s prime sponsor; Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45th); Rep. Laurie Jinkins (D-27th); Sen. Jeannie Darneille (D-27th); and Sen Jamie Pedersen (D-43rd) for their leadership on this issue and dedication to reforming the legal financial obligation system.
The ACLU-WA offers thanks to the many community groups who worked for the passage of the new law, including the Admin. Office of the Courts & Board for Judicial Administration, Anti-Defamation League, Catholic Community Services, City of Seattle, Civil Survival, Columbia Legal Services, Faith Action Network, I Did The Time, Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, King County, Pioneer Human Services, SEIU Healthcare 1199 NW, Statewide Poverty Action Network, Superior Court Judges Association, United Way of King County and United Way of Pacific Northwest, Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Washington Coalition of Crime Victim Advocates, Washington Defender Association, Washington Low Income Housing Alliance ,Washington State Catholic Conference, Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Washington Statewide Reentry Council, Washington Public Employees Association, Washington State Psychiatric Association, and Quaker Voice on Washington Public Policy.