In this week's issue, we have a story
about recent efforts in the State Supreme Court and state legislature to improve circumstances for people with legal financial obligations
, more fondly referred to as LFOs. Both measures aim to reduce the number of people who spend time in jail for nonpayment of LFOs and give defendants who can't pay other options to square their debts.
One piece of Spokane County's recent history with LFOs that didn't make it into the article, however, is the approval of a class action settlement that, among other things, would create an "LFO Improvement Fund" to help those recently saddled with crippling court-imposed fines.
Side note: There are two types of LFOs: mandatory and discretionary. Mandatory LFOs are charges that a judge is required by law to impose on a defendant. They include things like restitution for victims, fines associated with the criminal charge, criminal filing fees and fines for DNA sample testing. For example, there is a "victim penalty assessment" of $500 attached to felony and gross misdemeanor convictions and a $250 fee for all misdemeanor convictions in Washington state that a judge must impose. Discretionary LFOs include attorney's fees and other "court costs" that a judge decides to waive or tack on.
Here's what went down:
In 2003, Spokane County began issuing bench warrants for nonpayment of LFOs without an on-the-record hearing to determine if the individual was capable of paying. Some people call that a debtor's prison, others say "too bad, you should have paid," but the bottom line remains that people spent time in jail for nonpayment.
Collection deputies, the folks who collect money on behalf of the county clerk, then conducted interviews with those people while they were in jail without the presence of an attorney. During those interviews, collection deputies would tell offenders that they would ask the judge for reduced jail time as long as offenders signed a document waiving their right to a hearing and agreeing to go back to jail if they neglected to pay in the future (also known as "auto jail"). But if offenders didn't sign, the deputy would ask the judge for double the amount of jail time.
"They almost never had hearings for this," says Breean Beggs, one of the attorneys involved in the settlement. "Our argument was that you cannot put someone in jail if you haven't had the hearing to remedy that situation."
The issue of "auto jail" was worked out in another case: State v. Nason,
which established that a person can't be locked away without a hearing.
The other issues — judges issuing warrants without holding a hearing and offenders waiving their right to a hearing without an attorney present — were settled in Rucker v. Spokane County.
Aside from monetary compensation for the plaintiffs, the Rucker
settlement brought about two notable improvements to the LFO system. The first was a change to the form defendants receive after they've been convicted and pegged with fines. The new forms are required to clearly state that defendants have the right to a hearing and an opportunity to show that they didn't miss payments willfully and that indigence is a defense for nonpayment.
The other settlement agreement establishes the "LFO Improvement Fund," which is intended to help those with LFOs find a job and a way to pay off their debts.
The settlement was just approved in February 2015, so the fund hasn't been set up yet, but we'll continue to check on the progress and post updates.
Below is the full document of the settlement: