Thurston County News

 

​Questions and inquiries regarding News Release content should be directed to the Thurston County Public Information Officer:

Meghan Porter
360-490-0562

Bryan Dominique
360-867-2091

Tuesday, August 23, 2022
People Find Freedom From Court System Debts in County’s First Legal Financial Obligation Reconsideration Day
By Bryan Dominique, Public Information Officer
A message from Governor Inslee on Thurston County's 2022 Legal Financial Obligation Reconsideration Day.

It's not a well-known fact, but there are people who remain involved with the law and justice system long after they complete their sentence. After serving jail or prison time - if that was part of their sentence - and paying financial restitution, individuals leave the justice system only to find themselves confined to debt.

Nearly every person convicted of a crime in a Washington State court receives a bill for a legal financial obligation, or LFO, be it a felony or a misdemeanor. For years, the average amount of an LFO imposed in a felony case was $2,540, and prior to 2018, the convicted person immediately began accumulating debt at 12% interest on that LFO. The interest rate was mandated by Washington State law.

While this may not seem an insurmountable amount of money for some people, for many others, they are never able to fully pay off these fines and fees, even after years of regular payments. Factor in most people who become involved in the criminal justice system are poor, the result is many people in a perpetual cycle of court system debts.

"Depending on an individual's situation, it can be overwhelming to get the principal and interest paid in full [on an LFO]," said Linda Myhre Enlow, Thurston County Clerk.

The Thurston County judicial system took a big step Monday, August 15, to address this. Judges, attorneys, and prosecutors worked together to relieve 115 people burdened by debt associated with an old criminal conviction of interest payments and other related fees during the county's first ever Legal Financial Obligation Reconsideration Day. The 115 individuals who participated appeared before a judge, who ordered the cancelation of fines and penalties stemming from long-past convictions.

"I thought this day would never come," said Justin Logan, a participant in the county's LFO Reconsideration Day. "I thought I would be paying this off for the next 30 years; I just feel a lot of relief and gratitude."

Logan's sense of relief was echoed throughout the day. One individual paid off the principal of their LFO years ago. Interest payments were too much to keep pace with though. With the relief, they said they would put money toward things like housing and education.  

In this event alone, the value of the cancelations is estimated at more than $500,000, said the Director of Thurston County Public Defense, Patrick O'Connor.

"There comes a point where the fine has been paid. We don't want to live in a society that is essentially a debtors' prison in perpetuity," said O'Connor. "What we saw on Monday, as an example, was over 100 people who paid their debt; they served their incarceration if that was part of their sentence. Many of them have paid 100s, if not thousands of dollars, because of that conviction, but still owed money because of interest."

In 2018, the Washington State Legislature re-wrote the laws that allowed for the accrual of interest. The legislature eliminated interest accrual on LFOs. Later, other changes in the law were made that make a reduction in or waiver of LFOs more available.

"I recently signed two pieces of bipartisan legislation that has improved the system. In 2018, I signed a bill that, in part, ensured the courts can't jail a person for LFO debts unless they have a means, but refuse to pay. And this year, I signed a bill that gives judges' discretion to waive certain LFO fees, while allowing people to get relief from fines and fees if they show they are unable to pay," said Governor Jay Inslee in a recorded message. "This debt relief is life changing for so many individuals and their families. I want to applaud Thurston County for holding its first of what I hope will be many Legal Financial Obligation Reconsideration Days."

The case for LFO relief is so convincing, in fact, that the entire county law and justice system coalesced to make this event possible. O'Connor and Thurston County Public Defense took lead on reaching out to share the event with the community, the Clerk's Office reviewed the financials of each case, the Prosecuting Attorney's Office reviewed the cases and the relief requested prior to court, and a Superior or District Court judge presided over the case. 

"We [The Clerk's Office] are the ones who receipt and disperse all the money that is ordered in any type of superior court case in Thurston County," said Tawni Sharp, Chief Deputy Clerk with the Clerk's Office. "Our office worked very closely with public defense in providing what the LFO balances were on all the cases. Once all the orders were done, our office went back through those cases to make sure the amounts in the orders were correct. We also worked very closely with the courts in getting all those cases scheduled and calendared for that day."

By law, any person who has LFO debt prior to June 7, 2018, can request relief. However, the process is complicated because not everyone is aware they are eligible for such relief and completing the necessary paperwork can be difficult.

According to O'Connor, for most people, the process is hard without legal counsel, which makes events like LFO Reconsideration Days so important; it provides easy access to relief and helps get the word out about LFO relief.

Beyond that, 115 people are free after serving their sentences. 

"We as a community can recognize that people have paid their debt with liberty or financially, and that some of the laws we had in Washington before 2018 weren't really advancing public safety," said O'Connor. "They weren't advancing giving people an opportunity to re-enter the community and be successful."

Thurston County hopes to hold more LFO Reconsideration Days in the future. In addition, Thurston County Public Defense plans to explore the feasibility of hosting a clinic for LFO Reconsideration once a month, where volunteer attorneys can help people through the process of LFO relief. 

LFO Story.JPG

An aerial photo of The Thurston County Courthouse Complex, which is comprised in part by Superior Court and District Court. The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Public Defense, and the Clerk’s Office are also located here

County Commissioners:

Carolina Mejia
District 1

Gary Edwards
District 2

Tye Menser
District 3