January 2016 Bar Bulletin
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January 2016 Bar Bulletin

Legal Financial Obligations: A Ball and Chain

By Judge Theresa Doyle


Just three small letters. But such an overwhelming burden.

You can’t get a job or apartment because of your criminal record. The legal financial obligations (LFOs) ordered as part of your sentence remain unpaid, making matters worse. An employer’s or landlord’s background check shows not just your conviction, but that your case is still active because of the unpaid LFOs. And the unpaid LFOs have damaged your credit, making housing harder to find, even if you could afford the rent.

Now there is a warrant for your arrest for the unpaid LFOs. If you are picked up and jailed, you will miss the job interview and mental health treatment appointment next week. If you remain in jail too long, you will lose your temporary housing. Then you could lose custody of your children.

These are common consequences for people with LFOs that they are too poor to pay.

Facts about LFOs

In Washington, superior court judges at sentencing are required to impose, on most convictions, a $500 victim penalty assessment, $100 DNA fee and any restitution owing to the victim. This LFO debt accrues interest at 12 percent under state law.

There are a host of other discretionary LFOs — costs, fees and fines that judges can, but are not required to, impose.

The average LFO amount imposed in criminal cases statewide by Washington superior courts between 2010 and 2012 was $995. For indigent defendants, that is a huge sum. A person paying $20 monthly, at 12 percent interest, together with the annual surcharge assessed by most courts, after three years would still owe $797.

There is geographical disparity among counties across the state in imposing LFOs. It ranges from $600 in King County Superior Court, to more than $7,000 in Whitman County, according to a 2008 report prepared for the Washington Minority and Justice Commission (MJC).

How did we get here?

Mass Incarceration

Mass incarceration played a part. From 1973–2009, federal and state prison populations rose from 200,000 to 1.5 million. Today there are nearly 6 million persons in the United States with felony convictions.

There is dramatic racial and ethnic disproportionality in those numbers. Blacks are incarcerated at six times the rate of non-Hispanic whites; Hispanics at three times the rate.

More people with convictions means more people burdened with LFO debt. Most are poor. Approximately half were jobless at the time of arrest. Of those who were employed, about half reported income of $1,200 per month or less.

Adding insult to injury, LFO debt itself is disproportionately imposed. A recent MJC study revealed that in Washington, Hispanic males incur higher LFOs than non-Hispanic white defendants.

Inadequate Court Funding

Part of the problem has been inadequate trial court funding. Washington places dead last in the nation for state funding of trial courts. That means the counties must pick up the slack.

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