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Law helps indigent residents facing court costs

Gov. Inslee signs bill easing burden of fines

— It just got easier for indigent residents to avoid being jailed if they cannot afford to pay court-ordered penalties.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday signed into law House Bill 1783, which changes state and local courts’ abilities to collect money from indigent residents.

It also eliminates the ability to put indigent residents in jail for failing to pay fines, fees and court-ordered costs.

“This law ensures a person’s ability to pay is considered when LFOs (legal financial obligations) are imposed, and enables people with limited resources who have served their time to move on with their lives,” ACLU attorney Prachi Dave said. “No one should serve jail time simply because they are too poor to pay a fine or fee.”

Under the new law, indigent residents cannot be jailed for failing to pay fines, unless courts can prove they are willfully choosing not to pay. The law further states homeless residents or those who are mentally ill cannot be found to be willfully refusing to pay.

The law also clarifies standards for indigency, eliminates the judicial ability to impose costs, allows judges to waive fines and fees and eliminates the 12 percent interest on unpaid fines, fees and costs.

In lieu of paying legal costs, judges will be allowed to order community service.

The measure also eliminates the ability of courts to garnish funds from needs-based public assistance programs.

“Washington State has been highlighted nationally as having a particularly harsh LFO system, especially for its impact on persons who are indigent or otherwise lack the ability to pay,” Columbia Legal Services attorney Nick Allen said. “LFO policies criminalise poverty, because failure to pay can result in arrest and additional incarceration, and ever-growing legal debts, which hurt families and communities. This bill moves Washington in the right direction on criminal debt reform by addressing some of those harsh consequences and will hopefully improve the lives and reintegration efforts of poor persons with LFOs.”

The law also requires restitution be paid to victims before the courts can collect other legal obligations.

Poverty Action Executive Director Marcy Bowers said the program will keep people out of jail and help them avoid feeling hopeless.

“With this law, previously incarcerated people will be better able to meet their basic needs, provide for their families, and successfully re-enter their communities,” Bowers said. “Poverty should never be the determining factor for whether a person will be successful or unsuccessful after a criminal conviction.”


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