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Innovative developments for LFOs introduced at Supreme Court Symposium

The Washington State Supreme Court Minority and Justice Commission held a Symposium on at Seattle University School of Law on Wednesday to address issue of court fines and fees — their disproportionate impact on people of low income, and ideas to address this disparity.

The Minority and Justice Commission’s symposium announcement explains,

“Monetary sanctions such as court costs, fines and fees are known as Legal Financial Obligations — LFOs — and concern has been growing in Washington and nationally that LFOs can create endless cycles of debt and imprisonment and, essentially, “the criminalization of poverty.” In 2016, Washington was one of five states awarded a $500,000 grant by the U.S. Department of Justice to seek out strategies “to structure criminal justice legal financial obligations in ways that support, rather than undermine, rehabilitation and successful reintegration of justice-involved individuals into communities.”

The Symposium brought together researchers, judges, attorneys, and constituents subject to LFOs, including Supreme Court Justices Mary Yu, Debra Stephens, Charles Johnson, and Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst, to discuss issues with and new approaches to more equitably applying and administering fines and fees. Dr. Alexes Harris, Presidential Term Professor, University of Washington, author of A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor, explained that the total amount of fines ordered by courts in Washington has grown from $238 million in 2000 to over $335 million in 2014, a 14% increase. These fines come with coordinating restrictions on rights, like the right to vote or maintain a drivers’ license, that are not restored until LFOs are paid. She states,

“This has lead to a two-tiered system of justice in our state. One that is experienced very differently for people who are poor who face the system of justice. This is in terms of the extent of the punishment and the length of the punishment compared to people who are wealthy and who can just pay their fines and fees and move on with their lives.”

Another aspect that she pointed to as particularly troubling is the number of ways and points in the system at which Washington State and local jurisdictions allow private industry to enter into the market and profit off individuals, particularly the poor. Examples include facilitating on-line or telephone payments, administering payment plans, and debt collection.

The symposium highlighted three new and innovative projects designed to address LFOs concerns.  First, Judge Linda Coburn of Edmonds Municipal Court introduced the state’s new LFO Calculator, designed to help judges determine the ability of a defendant to pay LFOs at sentencing taking into account an defendant’s economic status and resources in light of mandatory and discretionary fines and fees. Though designed for superior court judges, the calculator can be used by anyone, including defendants themselves, who may calculate payment plans and find low-income fee waiver applications.

Later, Trish Kinlow, Tukwila Municipal Court Administrator, talked about the King County Unified Payment (UP) Program, which centralizes LFOs from several jurisdictions to allow individuals to make one minimum payment to bring them into compliance in all jurisdictions. Finally, Judge Kimberly Walden of Tukwila Municipal Court discussed the conversion of LFOs into community service creating more options to satisfy debts.

In response to the symposium on behalf of the Court, Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst said,

“It is very gratifying that as we see problems in our system, people will come together and improvise and test and employ methods to help us be responsive and responsible and to be sure that our justice really is delivering justice. That it is not being done on the backs of the poor. That everyone is treated with respect and dignity and given the opportunity to reenter and have meaningful lives after they have paid whatever debt or sanction that is put on them. And that the debt we are putting on is reasonable, humane, and thoughtful.”