Most of the inmates being held in King County Jail are actually eligible to vote – although many of them do not know it. Defense attorneys, advocates and election officials are reaching out to eligible inmates to help them have a voice in this year’s elections.
The New Hope Act (Chapter 331 of the Laws of 2019) became effective on July 28, 2019 and makes substantial changes to the rights and procedures for clearing criminal misdemeanor and felony conviction records in Washington State.
Among these changes are improved notice requirements for the Department of Corrections and the clerk of the court; the ability to vacate Assault in the second degree, Assault in the third degree when not committed against a law enforcement or peace officer, and Robbery in the second degree under specific circumstances; and the removal of restrictions based on prior vacations and the modification of restrictions based on prior restraining/protection orders.
For instructions and forms related to these new provisions, visit the New Hope Act portion of the Civil Survival web site.
The Washington State office of the ACLU has posted helpful “Can I Vote?” flowcharts to help people with criminal convictions figure out if they are eligible to vote. The flowcharts are written in seven languages–English, Chinese, Korean, Oromo, Spanish, Somali and Vietnamese. A person convicted as an adult of a felony in Washington State loses their right to vote and is also ineligible if they are serving a sentence for any felony conviction from another State or federal court. The right to vote is automatically restored once the person is no longer under the supervision of the Washington State Department of Corrections. Read the English language version of the “Can I Vote?” flowchart here.
King County Bar Association’s Volunteer Legal Services program has launched a new service for low-income people trying to vacate criminal conviction records. The ultimate goal is to reduce the barriers to employment and housing created by convictions. To be eligible to participate, you must be low-income and your most recent conviction must have been from a court within King County. Download this flyer for more information.
Seattle Municipal Court is sponsoring a warrant outreach program on Thursday, August 9th from 10:00am to 4:00pm at the Lake City Community Center. The Warrant Outreach event is a partnership between the Seattle Municipal Court, King County Department of Public Defense, Seattle City Attorney’s Office, Seattle Police Department, Seattle Parks and Recreation and the Seattle Human Services Department.
Anyone with outstanding warrants is welcome to attend and learn about options for resolving warrants and/or outstanding tickets. Court staff will be on hand to answer questions about court processes and provide additional information. For more information about the event, visit the City of Seattle’s news web site. or contact Gary Ireland, Public Information Officer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
- 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:
Join Deborah Espinosa, documentary photographer and attorney, as she celebrates the conclusion of her collection, Living with Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington State at the Kent branch of the King County Library System on Friday, December 15th from 4pm – 6pm.
Living with Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington State will feature individuals sharing their personal stories of struggling to survive and thrive under court-imposed fines, fees, costs, and victim restitution, aka “Legal Financial Obligations” or “LFOs,” which accrue interest at a rate of 12%. Living with Conviction is the creation of documentary photographer and attorney, Deborah Espinosa. She believes that the purpose of law is to serve our communities and to level the playing field, and thereby create a more just society. The only way to know if a law is serving us is to listen to those most impacted. This project does just that.
Deborah’s photographs will be on display in the Kent library from December 2nd to December 14th.
The Kent library is located at 212 2nd Avenue North, Kent, WA 98032. Questions about this program and Deborah Espinosa’s collection should be directed to Carla McLean, Librarian for Adult Services.
- If you were convicted of a felony in a Washington State court, your right to vote is restored automatically once you are no longer under the authority of DOC (in prison or on community custody). If you have questions about your status with DOC, call at (800) 430-9674.
- If you were convicted of a felony in another state or in federal court, your right to vote is restored automatically as long as you are not currently incarcerated for that felony.
- You do not lose the right to vote for a misdemeanor conviction or a conviction in juvenile court.
- You do not need a certificate of discharge (COD) to have your voting rights restored.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington has also updated their information on the restoration of voting rights for those that have been convicted of felonies as an adult. The page includes answers to many important questions such as:
- How do convictions affect my right to vote?
- How do I know when I’m eligible to have my rights restored?
- Do I need to re-register to vote?
- Who should I contact if I run into difficulty?
Voting is critically important in a democracy and everyone who has the right should have their voice heard. You can register to vote at the King County Law Library.