“These same parents have to go to work to buy the diapers and the food, so they drive, they get pulled over,” Pritchard says. “Sometimes they get their car impounded, sometimes they’re arrested. They go to jail. They lose their job. They lose their car. They can’t pay their rent that month so they get evicted and it leads to homelessness. And they have to start all over again.
“It’s this huge circle,” she says. “It’s a war against the poor.”
For years, Sumner and his family lived in a shack in Deer Park with no electricity, no heat and no water. He moved his family out to a slice of land in Nine Mile Falls so they could at least have a small farm. And electricity.
The farm doesn’t make much money, though. Sumner buys calves when they are young and feeds them until they get big — then he sells them again. He’ll buy hay and pick up all the discarded produce from Second Harvest Food Bank (where Sumner occasionally volunteers) to use as feed.
Watching as her husband dumps a sack of potatoes in the cow pasture, Angee Sumner says living out here on the farm isn’t her ideal life. But it’s the only thing that makes her husband happy.
“It’s his sanctuary,” she says. “To see him go back to work would make him feel a whole lot better and be a better person — just to be able to do the things that men can do.
“One way or another — he doesn’t care if he has to flip burgers.”
With his $20,000 in LFOs in collections, it’s likely that Sumner will never pay them off.
His predicament has been a common one. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report titled, “In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons (pdf).” In it, the ACLU examines how “insidious penalties and aggressive collections schemes ... keep [defendants] ensnared in the criminal justice system for decades.”
In some places, outstanding court fees — like Sumner’s — would be enough to keep throwing someone in jail. That was true in Spokane County until earlier this year. The ACLU’s report tells the story of James Nason, a Spokane man who spent 30 days in jail in 1999 for second-degree burglary and was assessed $750 in LFOs. Over the next few years, Nason made sporadic payments. But it wasn’t enough. In 2006, he was arrested under the county’s “auto-jail” policy — which hauled defendants back to jail if they weren’t paying.
At that point, Nason’s debt had more than doubled because of interest tacked on over time.
Nason’s case went to the Washington State Supreme Court and in June of this year, Nason won. The auto-jail policy violated Nason’s right to due process, the court held, by requiring him to return to jail without first assessing his ability to pay.
Prosecutors argued that Nason — then unemployed and living in his car — could have at least tried to pay his debts by collecting aluminum cans.
The ACLU argues that LFOs — like Jerry Sumner’s — are perhaps one of the biggest barriers for someone coming out of the corrections system. By 2004, the median LFO assessed for a felon in Washington state was $2,540. If they were able to make a minimum payment of $25 every month, they would be paying for at least 30 years. And if, like Sumner, they can’t get a job — the debt still keeps growing.
Sumner says he’s a good man and he’s tried to live an honest life. He doesn’t deserve the pains he’s had for a mistake he made when he was a kid.
Angee says her husband is constantly guessing why he has been held down so much for his mistake.
“His life goal is to get his license back,” she says. “He’s been talking about it for 20 years.”
Jack Lilienthal is not alone in thinking that it is in everyone’s best interest to help reformed felons succeed.
Lilienthal works for Goodwill Industries — an organization that tries to catch as many felons as it can right after they leave the system. Goodwill can help train them to find a job, help them write a résumé, even aid them in finding housing.
“Everybody who goes to work is less likely to re-offend — which means there is one less victim,” Lilienthal says. “There are hundreds of people out there who haven’t suffered a crime because someone went to work.”
Lilienthal emphasizes that the felons they see at Goodwill aren’t mass murderers or child molesters. They are people who learned from their mistakes. They just want to move past them.
Goodwill wants legislators to spend more time figuring out how to invest in felons than in how to lock up more of them. And Marc Mauer, from the Sentencing Project, agrees. The corrections system should be reserved for truly dangerous people.
“What’s happened is we have expanded the prison population well beyond what public safety would expect,” Mauer says.
So how do we ensure that our prisons are filled with people who should be there?
Anna Nordtvedt, an assistant Spokane County public defender, says the situation could be helped by decriminalizing driving without a license for people like Jerry Sumner who have unpaid fines.
“There’s no bus service in rural areas. And people are poor. What do you do if you have to take your kid to school? You’re going to drive,” she says. “You could have a seatbelt ticket and not pay it and you’ll get your license suspended — you could actually get a 90-day jail sentence for that.”
Nordtvedt suggests that people like Sumner and Collette who can’t pay their LFOs should be allowed to do community service.
The ACLU report outlines several ways to address the issue, such as waiving non-mandatory fees for indigent felons, prohibiting auto-jail policies, banning the 12 percent interest on LFOs and ensuring that the voting rights of felons are restored upon release from custody — regardless of how much they owe in fines.
Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Mexico have also passed “Ban the Box” laws — meaning employers can’t use job applications that require people to check a box if they have committed a felony. This prevents a felon — like Al-Hajri or Collette — from being immediately dismissed before they can tell their stories.
Breean Beggs, the Spokane attorney, thinks felons should be assessed on a case by case basis. He says blanket laws banning all felons from doing some things is just dangerous.
“[We’re] being broad and over-inclusive — that’s our current plan,” he says. “What I think people are realizing is that this is not working. It costs a lot of money and it’s counterproductive.
“There needs to be a comprehensive coming together to ask, ‘What kind of society do we want?’”
It’s Not Contagious
Carol has been sober for 16 years. She got a good job, finally, after completing a degree program at Eastern Washington University and majoring in social work. She volunteers in her neighborhood and at the food bank.
Seven years ago, she helped build a neighborhood C.O.P.S. shop — doing all of the wiring in the building herself. But when she turned in her application to be a volunteer, her felony came back to haunt her.
“I helped build that place from scratch,” she says. “But they ran my background and I couldn’t volunteer there. They’d known me for years.”
And though Carol successfully had her record expunged a few years ago — which means she can legally say she is not a felon — she still feels a heavy guilt. Like she doesn’t deserve to have a good life because of a mistake she made 22 years ago.
“Even though I’m not a felon anymore, I’ve lived with this identity for so long, I forget I’m not a felon anymore,” she says.
Today, sitting in her office, she says she has “a full and happy life.” She’s worked hard to be able to say that. And now that she’s out of the system, she can see it for its flaws.
“We were protecting people when people had leprosy by putting them on an island in Hawaii. And then we find out it’s not contagious. And neither is this sickness of keeping [felons] separate. It’s not contagious,” she says. “But it will continue to grow exponentially unless we can figure out a way to welcome people back in society. People won’t stay criminals when they are a part of society and feel like they are cared about.
“But when they aren’t,” she says. “They don’t have anything to lose.”
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