Questions and Answers about Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs)

What are Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs)?

Legal financial obligations, or LFOs, are the fines, fees, costs and restitution imposed by the court on top of a criminal sentence. Nearly every person convicted in a Washington court receives a bill for LFOs at sentencing. The average amount of LFOs imposed in a felony case is $2,540. LFOs can include the cost of a public defender and a flat charge for each day spent in jail.

Washington law mandates that LFOs have an annual interest rate of 12 percent. In some counties, clerks also impose a collection fee of $100 per year, which must be paid ahead of other LFOs, including restitution.

What must courts consider before imposing LFOs?

People should not be sentenced to LFOs that are beyond their means to pay. In State v. Blazina (2015), the Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled that courts must take into consideration a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing LFOs. The Court ruled that trial courts must make “an individualized inquiry” into the defendant’s current and future ability to pay before imposing court costs, and must consider important factors, such as incarceration and the defendant’s other debts.

Moreover, the Court stated that if a person receives public assistance or has an income at or below the poverty level, then courts should seriously question that person’s ability to pay LFOs.

What’s wrong with the present LFO system?

People with money can pay their LFOs immediately without the added cost of interest or collection fees. But people who are poor cannot do so and may remain tied to the criminal justice system for years solely because of court system debts. For example, a person who can only afford to pay $20 per month in an effort to repay the average $2,500 debt may remain indebted to the court even after years of regular payment. In fact, a person who owed $2,500 in debt will owe $300 in interest by the end of the first year that the LFOs are owed. At a rate of $20 per month, the person will not even be able to pay off the interest that accrued on the debt, let alone the initial debt itself.

LFOs cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, and many never expire. Those who are unable to pay their LFOs may even be arrested and end up in jail.

Is jailing someone for non-payment of court debts legal?

Jailing someone for being unable to pay is illegal. In Bearden v. Georgia (1983), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a person cannot be incarcerated for failing to pay his criminal debt if his failure to pay was due solely to his poverty. A defendant cannot be incarcerated unless he has the ability to pay but refuses to do so. However, several courts in Washington state continue to incarcerate people without any regard for the standards in Bearden, and do so frequently as a punitive measure for failing to pay their LFOs. The ACLU-WA filed a lawsuit against Benton County in October 2015 over their practice of jailing people unable to pay off LFOs and other abusive practices; as a result, Benton County Commissioners voted in December 2015 to end this practice.

Can’t poor people just work off their debts on work crew?

Some counties have offered people the option of performing physical labor on a work crew in order to satisfy their debts. But this is not a realistic option for everyone. While they are laboring on work crew, people cannot hold down a job of their own or care for their families. At the same time, they live under the threat of being thrown in jail if they are sick or late to work crew.

Even if there are problems with LFOs generally, isn’t payment for restitution an important part of those LFOs?

Yes. Restitution repays crime victims for their loss, and its collection should be prioritized above all other LFOs. However, court fees and fines are often collected first, leaving little or no money for restitution to victims. For example, if a person pays $150 a year towards LFOs, a court clerk may first deduct the $100 collection fee before applying the remaining $50 to restitution, fines, fees, and court costs. The ACLU supports a proposed legislative reform to prioritize restitution to victims; HB 1390 includes provisions to make restitution a priority whenever payments are made towards LFOs in superior courts and courts of limited jurisdiction.

Is Washington the only place where LFOs are a problem?

No. Courts across the country have unfairly imposed LFOs on people who cannot afford to pay and have used aggressive tactics to collect unpaid fines and fees. They have ordered the arrest and jailing of people who fall behind on their payments without affording any hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay or offering alternatives to payment.

In response, the ACLU across the country has been exposing and challenging these modern-day debtors’ prisons, urging governments and courts to pursue more rational and equitable approaches to criminal justice debt.

What should be done to address the LFO system?

The ACLU-WA supports further reforms of our LFO system, including passage of HB 1390 by the state legislature. The measure would fully implement the court ruling that a person’s ability to pay LFOs must be taken into account, and would reform other problematic features of the system; these include the exorbitant interest rates on LFOs, the lack of priority of payment to victims, and the jailing of indigent people who cannot pay their LFOs.

HB 1390 allows for a sentence to community service, with the consent of the defendant, to discharge LFOs. This would provide an alternative for those who cannot pay their LFOs to perform meaningful service to their communities and at a rate of at least the minimum wage.