Month: June 2018

New Law Reduces Harsh Impacts of Criminal Debt (LFOs) for Defendants Living in Poverty

Indigent people can be spared court fees that result from a criminal conviction and cannot be sanctioned for their inability to pay restitution and fines, under the new Washington Legislature Bill E2SHB 1783. This bill will ensure that poor people are not unfairly jailed or tied for years to the criminal justice system because they are unable to pay court-imposed debts known as Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs).

LFOs are fees, fines, costs, and restitution imposed by courts on every person convicted of a crime in Washington. The average LFO in Washington on a single case is $1,128, including misdemeanors. Poor people lack the resources to pay LFOs; according to the Administrative Office of the Courts, only 23.8% of LFOs are paid statewide. Even people who are homeless or who rely on public assistance payments to meet basic needs are forced to pay LFOs and interest. As a result, people with limited finances face insurmountable debt and remain tethered to the criminal justice system for years. And while jail is supposed to be reserved for individuals who willfully refuse to pay their LFOs, all too often courts have locked up poor people who were simply unable to pay, resulting in modern-day debtors’ prison. In one Washington county, approximately 20% of people in custody on a given day were serving time for non-payment of court-imposed debt.

Starting July 1, LFOs will be restructured in Washington, according to E2SHB 1783. Here is a comprehensive list of the changes enacted by E2SHB 1783:

  • Prioritization of Victim Restitution: The bill prioritizes victim restitution by clarifying that this obligation must be paid out before any other LFOs when an LFO payment is submitted. Court costs, fines, and other assessments are to be paid after all victim restitution is completed.
  • Ending the practice of jailing people who are unable to pay LFOs: The law clarifies that a court cannot jail a person who fails to pay LFOs unless the failure to pay is willful. People who are homeless or mentally ill cannot be found to have willfully failed to pay.
  • Clearer standards for indigence and ability to pay: Judges will no longer be allowed to impose certain costs on defendants, such as the cost for his or her public defender if they meet certain income requirements created by the bill that render the individual indigent (someone at 125% of the poverty level).
  • Reducing the Number of Mandatory LFOs: Many mandatory LFOs become discretionary, meaning the court can waive them upon a finding of indigence (someone at 125% of the poverty level).
  • Elimination of Interest: The courts can waive interest rates on unpaid LFOs, which are currently at 12%.
  • Set-Up Payment Plans: The courts can set up payment plans for costs and fines if the person is homeless, mentally ill, or indigent (someone at 125% of the poverty level).
  • Community Service Creation: Several provisions allow for the court to convert some LFOs to community service if the defendant is too poor to pay.
  • Protecting Public Assistance: The bill prohibits forced collection of funds received from needs-based public assistance programs.

Supporters of the new law said in legislative hearings that LFOs, with their high interest rates, create an endless financial web for poor offenders after they are released from prison, keeping some in poverty and unable to return to society. It will remove some of the hurdles that make it difficult for some people to “get back on their feet” after incarceration, Gov. Jay Inslee said.

“This law ensures a person’s ability to pay is considered when LFOs are imposed, and enables people with limited resources who have served their time to move on with their lives… No one should serve jail time simply because they are too poor to pay.” – Prachi Dave, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Washington.

For comprehensive information about the impacts of LFOs, see Modern-Day Debtors Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor, a report issued by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services: https://www.aclu-wa.org/docs/modern-day-debtors-prisons-washington. Community advocates, including the ACLU-WA, Columbia Legal Services, and the Statewide Poverty Action Network (Poverty Action), have been seeking changes to the LFO system for the past several years. You can read their reactions to this new law here:


Motor Vehicle Repossessions: Advice from NCLC

This article, Motor Vehicle Repossessions: Consumer Debt Advice from NCLC, is the third in a series of articles from NCLC (National Consumer Law Center) that provide advice for families in financial difficulty. The Consumer Debt Advice series, targeted directly to the consumer, includes information about legal rights and best strategies for dealing with debt.

The focus of this article is on motor vehicle repossession including limits on self-help repossessions, ten strategies to prevent repossessions, six steps to take after your car is repossessed, and advice on responding to the creditor’s demand for additional payment even after the repossession. Far more detail with legal citations is found in NCLC’s Repossessions, a comprehensive legal treatise on consumer rights when dealing with motor vehicle repossessions.

You can read the full article on the NCLC Digital Library website by clicking on any of the links in this post or by following this address: https://library.nclc.org/motor-vehicle-repossessions-consumer-debt-advice-nclc.

Real Change’s New Resource Guide for Homelessness

Real Change released Seattle’s The Emerald City Resource Guide in April 2018. This new pocket-size resource guide is intended to help homeless people navigate a spiderweb of resources in King County. You can download The Emerald City Resource Guide here.

A common refrain in homeless services is that Seattle’s strength — a large number of nonprofits working to take care of homeless people — is also its weakness. In 2017, King County was home to 77 organizations that shelter or house homeless people. That’s 25 more than the city of San Francisco, and more than the entire state of Montana.

If you’re homeless, navigating this vast network can be hard. That’s why Real Change released a pocket guide to services for homeless people.

“Real Change is printing 40,000 copies of this Emerald City Resource Guide, a 132-page booklet they hope homeless people will use to navigate the city’s spiderweb of resources.” (Photo courtesy of Real Change)

This durable and comprehensive pocket-sized booklet puts 132 slim pages of essential resources at the fingertips of homeless and very low-income people. New editions of the Emerald City Resource Guide will be published at least annually to keep services reliable and accurate.

The guidebook will list services such as health care, shelters and meals — and also features special sections for help with LGBTQ resources, culturally specific services and assistance with immigration issues.

The Emerald City Resource Guide complements online service listings that already exist by making the information immediately accessible to those who lack consistent access to technology.

According to Real Change Director Tim Harris, “I recently heard the story of a woman at a bus stop late at night, when she was approached by a young woman looking for a place to stay that night. The young woman didn’t have a cell phone, and by that time libraries were closed and she had nowhere to turn to look up local shelters. The first woman quickly searched through her phone, and was able to point the young woman in the right direction. If she had a guidebook, she said, she would have been able to hand the young woman a copy, connecting her to more support opportunities.”

“This is our vision on the Emerald City Resource Guide: a pocket-sized portal to change. As someone flips through the guidebook, looking for a shelter, maybe they’ll pass an entry on drug treatment services, or a job readiness program, and inspiration will spark.” – Real Change Director, Tim Harris

This pilot guidebook was made possible by a $20,000 Seattle Human Services Department Innovation Grant, $12,000 in sponsorships from a wide variety of partners, and around $4,000 of Real Change’s own money. Current sponsors of the Resource Guide include: 2-1-1, YWCA, Amerigroup Washington, Muslim Association of Puget Sound, Neighborcare Health, Jewish Family Service, DESC, Solid Ground, Evergreen Treatment Services, Pike Place Market Senior Center, Recovery Café, ROOTS and Community Health Plan of WA.

Read more about this new resource in Real Change News: Director’s Corner or The Seattle Times.

New Domestic Cause of Action Granting Relatives the Right to Seek Visits with a Child

Washington State SB 5598 (companion bill HB 2117) 2017-18 amends RCW 26.10.160 and adds a new chapter to Title 26. The new law allows for grandparents and other relatives by blood or marriage (including step-family members) the ability to seek an order regarding visits with a child who is not their biological child. This law goes into effect on June 7, 2018.

The following is King County related information about this new cause of action:

  • A new set of statewide pattern forms will be made available from the Washington State Office of the Administrator for the Courts, including:
    • Petition for Visits,
    • Response to Petition,
    • Motion for Advanced Lawyer Fees & Costs,
    • Order After Review of Petition, and
    • Final Order and Findings on Petition.
  • When those new statewide pattern forms are complete, you may find them here: https://www.courts.wa.gov/forms/?fa=forms.static&staticID=14#FamLawForms
  • Cases may be initiated upon the filing of a Petition for Visits. This is a new cause of action.
  • The domestic filing fee of $260 applies.
  • Cases will receive a case schedule and will be assigned to the Chief Unified Family Court (UFC) Judge, Judge Rietschel.
  • The Chief UFC Judge will conduct an in camera review hearing to determine whether the case will go forward. If the case moves forward, the Chief UFC Judge will assign it to a UFC Department judge for trial. Both the in camera review hearing and trial date are set via the case schedule issued at the time of filing.