House Passes Simmons Bill to Provide Relief from Legal Financial Obligations for Low-Income People

OLYMPIA – Legislation to allow judges to waive legal financial obligations for those unable to pay them passed the Washington House of Representatives today with a vote of 70-24. Legal financial obligations (LFOs) are fines, fees, costs, and restitution that people with criminal convictions must pay as a part of their sentence. Unfortunately, for people without the ability to pay, they can create significant barriers to reentry. House Bill 1412 is sponsored by Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton), the first formerly incarcerated state representative in Washington history.

“Currently, our system makes few allowances for those unable to pay LFOs,” said Simmons. “Being incarcerated already massively impacts a person’s employment opportunities, but LFOs trap those unable to pay in lifelong debt that prevents them from successfully reintegrating into the community.”

HB 1412 addresses this problem by allowing judges to waive or reduce LFOs based on evidence of a person’s inability to pay them. Current law does not allow judges any discretion to waive some LFOs. The bill also creates a state fund to ensure victim services are not impacted.

“The first time I testified in Olympia was on an LFO reform bill,” said Simmons. “After I was released from prison, I worked at Burger King. Despite barely making enough money to live, my paychecks were garnished to pay for my LFOs. They made rebuilding my life nearly impossible,” said Simmons. “Keeping people trapped in a debt cycle only encourages recidivism. Our laws should not be punishing people simply because they are poor.”

This bill would help address the significant racial disparities Washington has in criminal sentencing. People of color are sentenced to pay LFOs more often and at higher rates when compared to white people. Allowing those without the ability to pay to seek relief from paying LFOs will strengthen the economic stability of the communities that people are returning to.

HB 1412 builds on the work of HB 1783, which passed in 2018. That bill ended the practice of jailing those who were unable to pay their LFOs. This bill continues that work by creating ways for low-income people to free themselves from court debt. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.