Washington, for all its talk of being a progressive bastion, certainly has not carried this title over to its criminal justice system for many reasons. One of those reasons is the existence of something that much of the general public is not aware of: Legal Financial Obligations, more commonly referred to as LFOs. LFOs are typically doled out at sentencing, and “include the fees, fines, costs, and restitution imposed by the court”—nevermind the criminal sentence in and of itself1. Essentially, LFOs tell defendants that it is not enough that they will be tried in a system with many issues, but that they must also pay money for the occurrence of the trial.
In Washington, for a typical felony case, a defendant can expect to get slapped with sums in excess of $2500. Fines like these are so prohibitively high that a significant number of people just can’t pay them all off at once. To make matters worse, LFOs get worse with “statutorily-mandated high interest” rates and other such fees1. And what happens when people can’t pay them, you might ask? Defendants can look forward to “court hearings, contempt charges, and arrest warrants”1. This ends up creating an incredibly damaging cycle with even more LFOs and more charges, potentially culminating in jail time when people are so crushed by their legal fines. This all effectively becomes punishment just for being poor. And that’s before we even begin to consider the impacts that this on families, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet.
Had HB 1783 not been signed into law this year, this would all still be true for Washington. Inside the bill were many reforms put into place to address the problems with LFOs in the state. For instance, courts can no longer jail those who, unwillingly, cannot afford to pay2. No longer can Washington charge 12% interest rates on LFOs, and now, many LFOs are no longer mandatory, but instead discretionary2. Moreover, HB 1783 allows for some LFOs to instead be converted to community service hours when the defendants don’t have enough money to pay2.
Legislative reforms such as HB 1783 are crucial for correcting many of the wrongs in our criminal justice system—they give the people of Washington caught up in the criminal justice system tangible victories that equate to real relief, and make possible reentry back into society. Most importantly, perhaps, these victories help further our collective pursuit of justice. However, it is not enough to sit idly by and wait for things to improve. HB 1783, and efforts like it, are only possible when we the people get out and make our voices heard to our representatives.