November 2012 Bar Bulletin
 
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November 2012 Bar Bulletin

LFOs Keep Poor Chained to Debt Spiral

By Eileen Farley and Nick Allen

 

In the fall of 2012, G.M. was supporting herself and her teenage daughter on the $1,000 a month she earned working 32 hours a week at a sporting goods store. G.M. also was enrolled in the University of Washington Honors Program, volunteered in the community, and had recently celebrated six years of sobriety. For some it might seem a hard life, but for G.M. it was a victory no one would have predicted.

Each of these things - life with her daughter, employment and academic success - came after G.M. spent more than 10 years in jails or prison. On the streets in her early teens, she became addicted to meth, injecting $250 to $300 of drugs a day. A mother at 26, she lost custody of her daughter and spent 10 years in the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW).

While she was at WCCW, the State deducted money from the 41 cents an hour G.M. earned to pay her Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) ordered as a condition of her six felony sentences and now totaling more than $30,000. The payments ranged from $4.50 a month to a one-time high of $91. All but $3,000 of her LFOs were court costs and fines.

Although required by statute to first pay restitution and then allocate funds equally among all cases, the clerk in the county receiving G.M.'s payments applied the funds to only one of her six cases.1 As a result, G.M. - honor student, reliable employee and, most importantly, a mother whose parental rights had been restored - opened six envelopes this fall from the county clerk. Each contained an order to appear in court and demonstrate why she should not be jailed for failing to pay her LFOs.

When G.M. appeared in court, taking time she could ill afford from her job, she was with a lawyer hired by the Post Prison Education Program (PPEP), a nonprofit whose students all have served lengthy prison sentences. Like G.M., the PPEP was always short of money, but backed its students fiercely. G.M. also brought letters from her employer, her church and her work as a volunteer; the record of her 3.8 GPA from Seattle Central Community College; and proof of enrollment in the Honors Program.

The judge had read none of G.M.'s pleadings and ordered her to return the following week. Again taking time she could ill afford and having spent another week wound tight with anxiety about money, the thought of jail and who would care for her daughter, G.M. returned to court. This time, over the prosecutor's objections, the judge set a minimum payment schedule for G.M. and praised her for her efforts and successes.

The home G.M. built stands on an always-fragile footing. Losing time from work or making payments of $20 a month could make the difference between a home and couch surfing. G.M., with strong support from the PPEP, was able to stay on her feet.

Others, struggling but without such help, too often are unable to rent a stable place to live because of LFOs' effect on credit, or are unable to find a job because employers don't want to deal with garnishments. For many debtors, LFOs and collection practices stand between them and decent housing, jobs and the completion of sentences.


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