On February 28, 2018, the Washington Senate voted in favor of the Legal Financial Obligation bill, E2SHB 1783. Among other things, the bill eliminates interest accrual on the nonrestitution portions of legal financial obligations (LFOs). It also prevents a court from imposing costs on a defendant who is indigent at the time of sentencing. The bill also addresses payment plans and appropriate sanctions for a non-willful failure to pay. Tarra Simmons testified in her capacity as Co-chair of the Statewide Reentry Council before the Senate Law and Justice Committee on February 7. Ms. Simmons is also the Executive Director of Civil Survival.

During her testimony Ms. Simmons explained that the Statewide Reentry Council was created by the Washington legislature and charged with making recommendations to reduce recidivism while improving public safety. Although she would be sitting for the Washington State Bar exam in just three weeks she prioritized testifying over studying. Ms. Simmons recounted the hard road she faced after being released from prison over a minor drug conviction. She faced legal financial obligations of over $6000 due to the 12% interest rate that had accrued during her incarceration. The total LFO’s soon exceeded $7000. She was working at Burger King but the State garnished what little money she had, making it difficult to support her children. She said she was caught in a hopeless cycle she would not have escaped but for the help of strangers. Many other justice-involved-individuals are not so fortunate. The Reentry Council strongly supports the LFO bill as drafted. It would provide hope to people trying to reenter the workforce and support their families while reducing the pressure on the state to build a costly new prison.

Nick Allen, an attorney with Columbia legal services also testified in support of the LFO Reform bill. Mr. Allen says that he sees clients facing increasing debt due to the high interest rate and mandatory LFO’s that do not consider an individual’s ability to pay. He explained that there is a great deal of variance in jurisdictions around the state about how and when indigence is determined. Because of the burden of their LFO’s, many people remain in the court system for extensive periods of time despite having completed all other requirements and having no other convictions – sometimes for decades. House Bill 1783 addresses many of the existing LFO problems in a comprehensive rather than piecemeal way. Mr. Allen strongly urges the legislature to adopt the bill as drafted.

Dante Pollard is a concerned citizen who testified about the severe impacts LFO’s have had on his life despite only about a year of incarceration. Mr. Pollard explained that when he was released he was left with $2700 in LFO’s. He made the minimum payments for about 8 years. He then missed a couple of payments and did not receive the notice to appear in court. This resulted in his arrest and imprisonment for about a week. He is a single father and missed spending Christmas with his children. Mr. Pollard now owes over $17,000. All of his payments have gone solely to cover the interest while his debt continues to grow. He is concerned that his debt might eventually reach $100,000 at the current 12 percent rate. He is now attending school as well as being involved in community activities and working with foster children. He worries that he might be arrested in front of the children or the foster parents in the future for simply missing a payment.

Deborah Hawley, a concerned citizen from Whatcom county, also gave powerful testimony on behalf of her formerly-incarcerated son. Ms. Hawley works with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to help with transition and reentry. Her son was released from incarceration 11 months ago after a 7-year sentence. Her son has a mental health disorder as well as addition issues. He received no evaluation or assistance in prison but is now able to work toward his recovery. Ms. Hawley recently saw a bill stating that his current LFO’s are $49,000, with $28,000 in interest alone. Ms. Hawley testified that her son has completed his debt to society by serving his sentence. She calculated that, even if no further interest accrued, it would take 40 years to pay off his LFO debt. She concluded by stating that LFO’s are not helping people successfully transition and do not reduce recidivism.