A huge thanks to intern Jerusha Dressel for researching and writing this blog post.
In 2003, Washington resident David Ramirez was convicted of residential burglary. Currently, the father of four still struggles to make his $30 Legal Financial Obligation (LFO) payment each month. Ramirez cannot go back to his former employment due to medical issues and consequently, the family relies on $400 a month in public aid as well as food stamps for their income. The constant threat of arrest if a payment is missed lingers over him. He is forced to decide between jail and meeting his family’s basic needs: “The message the courts have sent to me over and over again is that if I don’t pay in full every month, I’ll go to jail and I’ll lose everything. I’ve had judges tell me that they don’t care what my other obligations are, LFOs come first. First before food and shelter. It doesn’t matter what my family suffers, so long as the court gets paid.”
In February 2014, the ACLU published a report entitled “Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor.” The report specifically focused on LFOs in the State of Washington and their effects on offenders and law enforcement efficacy. The report found that 80 to 90 percent of individuals facing felony charges are deemed “indigent” and over half of persons in prison have not obtained a high school diploma. Almost everyone convicted of a crime in the state of Washington must pay LFOs.
Given that a significant portion of the convicted criminal population falls into such a low income bracket and are poorly educated, it is not a stretch to imagine how this could have adverse effects. Many individuals simply want to leave prison and move on with their lives, but LFOs represent a constant reminder of their past. The average LFO for a convicted felon is $2,540 and LFOs for felonies accrue interest at a rate of 12 percent in Washington, which includes the time that the offender is in prison. In light of the high fraction of convicted felons who are labeled indigent, this is an enormous amount and can take years to pay off. LFOs often create a lose-lose situation for offenders and the government. Many individuals are sent back to prison due to an inability to make payments on their LFOs. This may interrupt employment and pull children apart from their parents. According to the ACLU, this “court imposed debt presents a formidable barrier, pushing people deeper into poverty and prolonging their involvement with the criminal justice system.” The criminal justice system is required to process additional paperwork and hunt down and jail persons who fail to keep up on their LFO fees.
Although state statute allows a court to take into account an individual’s financial situation when imposing optional LFOs, that often does not happen. In many cases, persons making payments on LFOs are also dependent on public aid programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). These programs are giving these individuals/families funds just so they can sustain an elemental standard of living. However, recipients can be obligated by a court to reroute the money away from necessities such as food and housing in order to pay off LFOs.
In response to the “debtors’ prison” problem in Washington, the ACLU has made seven recommendations. Among these, it encouraged creating “clear statewide criteria for determining a person’s ability to pay LFOs.” The ACLU maintained that taking into account an individual’s financial situation when determining LFOs should be mandatory. There are currently no standards set for the examination of an individual’s financial situation. Clear guidelines need to be established for determining whether a person is fiscally capable of handling LFO payments. The ACLU also recommends that Washington “[e]liminate the current 12% interest rate on non-restitution LFOs, and suspend all interest during incarceration.” Additional proposals include ensuring that defendants understand their rights and are allowed council throughout the court process.
The Center for Justice provides services to aid those struggling under the burden of LFOs:
- We can ask the courts to waive the interest that has accrued on non-restitution LFOs, either while an individual was incarcerated or after he or she was released.
- We can ask the courts to reduce interest that has accrued on restitution.
- We can help determine if LFOs will ever expire.
- We can help create a realistic, long-term budgeting strategy that allows the individual to make payments on their LFOs and avoid sanctions for nonpayment.
This is all part of an effort to reduce the number of individuals trapped in a cycle of poverty. Before making payments on their LFOs, persons should be permitted to ensure that basic needs such as food and housing are being met. Moreover, by aiding in the development of long-term budget strategies, the Center helps the individual become an active participant in his or her success.
Across Washington, there are situations similar to that of David Ramirez. Individuals committed a crime years ago and really just want to move on with their lives cannot because they are still living with the burden of LFOs. These are ordinary, everyday people with families to provide for and dreams for the future. Despite his situation, Ramirez expresses optimism about the future, “I believe in America, you know? I love this country. I want to start a business and provide for my family. My kids are straight A students, and I want them to go to college. But right now, I feel like the fines keep me from getting up and breathing and being the person I want to be.”
 “MODERN-DAY DEBTORS’ PRISONS: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor,” ACLU, February 2014, accessed February 29, 2016, http://cforjustice.org/legal-services/legal-financial-obligations-lfos/.
 “MODERN-DAY DEBTORS’ PRISONS: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor,” ACLU.