Legal Financial Obligations Create a Modern Debtors’ Prison for Many

by | Mar 8, 2018

Civil Survival member Michael Shoemaker was among a group of panelists who spoke recently on the issue of Legal Financial Obligations (LFO’s) at the Living With Conviction lecture series at UW Law School. There were powerful personal stories as well as some startling statistics about the lifetime of negative impacts LFO’s can have for those who have completed their sentences and are trying to improve their lives, families and communities.

Dr. Alexes Harris, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, provided statistical context for the growing problem of LFO’s in our state. She explained how restitution, court fees, surcharges and an ongoing 12% interest rate can quickly create an insurmountable debt burden for individuals involved in the justice system. King County alone has $750 million in outstanding LFO’s, with the average debt being around $4700. The impact of LFO’s also falls disproportionately on people of color, who are incarcerated at much higher rates. Professor Harris concluded by offering some possible solutions, including a credit system for those who make positive strides such as completing a GED, participating in substance abuse counseling or volunteering. Other positive changes to LFO burdens could include graduated sanctions, abolishing court fees and fines and decriminalizing the trivial failure to pay traffic fines.

Deborah Espinosa is an attorney and photographer who spent her career working on poverty and justice issues in Africa. In 2014 she attended a Continuing Legal Education seminar about debtors’ prisons. She had no idea that such a thing existed in the United States. She was mortified to learn about how continuing LFO’s create nearly insurmountable barriers for those seeking to improve their lives after involvement with the justice system. She spent the next couple of years interviewing formerly incarcerated individuals and creating the Living With Conviction multimedia project to educate Washington citizens and policy makers about the horrific impacts of these continuing financial burdens. Most people don’t realize that a person can be arrested for missing an LFO payment and can lose their job, housing or children as a result. The Living With Conviction project seeks to amplify the voices of those impacted by LFO’s and increase the public’s awareness of what it is like to survive with little hope of paying off the ever-increasing debt. To learn more about this important project, please visit the Living With Conviction website.

Michael Shoemaker is one of the individuals interviewed by Ms. Espinosa for the Living With Conviction project. He spoke about how he had substance abuse issues that led to a 90 month sentence for drug offenses. At the time he was convicted his LFO’s were $14,000. Because of the 12% interest rate the amount had grown to $99,000 when he was released. Mr. Shoemaker is a disabled veteran on a fixed income with no ability to pay off that debt. The court ordered him to pay regardless of his 11 years of sobriety, his financial background and his community volunteer efforts. He was eventually able to petition the court for a waiver of some of the interest burden with the help of Civil Survival Executive Director Tarra Simmons. He has worked hard to change his life and give back to the community that he harmed with methamphetamines and drugs. He’s spoken to the Washington State senate, a judicial panel, and others who he says had no idea this LFO cycle of debt existed. It creates a lifelong debtor’s prison for a shocking number of justice involved individuals. Mr. Shoemaker continues to work on shining a light on the plight of those with crushing LFO burdens.

To hear more stories about LFO’s and the problems they create for individuals, families and society, please watch the entire video presentation on Facebook.