Legal Financial Obligations: Fulfilling the Promise of Gideon by Reducing the Burden

Stearns examines the imposition and enforcement of Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) in Washington State on people unable to pay them and argues that the resulting disparities impact the ability of the criminal justice system to impose fair and meaningful penalties that hold people accountable and reduce recidivism. In Washington, the court can impose at least eighteen fines and fees on a person convicted of a felony plus restitution. The $500 Victim Penalty Assessment and the the $100 DNA collection fee are mandatory for each case. Further, all LFO’s accrue a 12 percent interest rate when the court enters judgment. Once released from jail, individuals can seek a waiver or reduction of the interest but only if they have made at least 15 payments in an 18-month period.

Stearns highlights Fuller v. Oregon which states the burden of repayment should not be imposed on a person with manifest hardship whose indigence is unlikely to end. Stearns argues that LFOs should not be imposed on a person with a proven mental disability who is unable to work. Further, he emphasizes the need for systemic reform to improve re-entry, reduce recidivism, disproportionality, and disparites in the system. He contends that making payments more manageable and achievable may actually increase revenues. He also argues that public defender fees should be eliminated because defendants may be dissuaded from applying for counsel because of the fees imposed.

Stearns encourages Washington to follow the Massachusetts model where an initial inquiry is conducted considering the revenue that could be generated, the cost of administering and collecting the fee, as well as the impact on affected persons. Finally, he argues for increased use of community service and also highlighted the Spokane relicensing program as a good example of reform.

You can read the full text here.

Many of Stearns’ proposed reforms, most notably the elimination of the 12 percent interest rate on LFOs other than restitution, have been enacted in Washington.

Travis Stearns
Seattle Journal for Social Justice, 11 Seattle J for Soc. Just. 963 (2013)