House passes Simmons bill to reform Legal Financial Obligations

OLYMPIA – A bill to reform Washington’s Legal Financial Obligation (LFOs) system passed the Washington House of Representatives Tuesday evening with a vote of 56-41. Sponsored by Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton), House Bill 1169 eliminates mandatory LFOs, which a judge cannot waive, even if a person is unable to pay. In 2019, Washington Superior Courts collected less than 10% of the LFOs imposed.

“This bill is a win-win-win. Not only does it free up our county clerks from spending dollars to collect dimes, but it ensures that crime victim’s programs are adequately funded and gives low income formerly incarcerated people a chance to rebuild their lives,” said Simmons, the nation’s first formerly incarcerated lawmaker. “Right now, when a person cannot pay an LFO, it traps them in a cycle of debt that prevents them from moving on with their life. A criminal conviction already comes with significant collateral consequences in housing and employment. We do not need to continue forcing people who cannot pay into debt in order to fund our court system.”

LFOs are fees and fines that a court may impose as part of a criminal sentence. They can include victim restitution, court costs, costs associated with prosecution and defense, fines, and other penalties. Currently, only two LFOs are mandatory, the crime victim penalty assessment and the DNA database fee. The crime victim penalty assessment is imposed on adults and juvenile offenders and is used to encourage and facilitate victims and witnesses to testify. The bill would eliminate these two mandatory fees and replace them with dedicated funding from the state ensuring that both of these accounts have a stable source of funding.

“Nationally, 1 in 3 people have been convicted of a criminal offense. To vacate a criminal conviction requires paying off all your LFOs. The problem with mandatory LFOs is that they cannot be waived by a judge, even if they find that you are unable to pay. This creates a vicious cycle whereby a person who is trying to rejoin our community after serving their sentence cannot find adequate work and therefore cannot pay off their LFOs but cannot vacate their conviction and get a better job because they cannot pay off their LFOs. This drives people deeper into poverty and often back into crime. This bill will eliminate the final mandatory LFOs, creating more efficient government, allowing court clerks to focus on collecting victim restitution. It will also prevent recidivism by getting people out of a cycle of debt and poverty.”

HB 1169 passed the House Community Rights & Judiciary Committee on January 27th and the House Appropriations Committee on February 20th. It now heads to the Senate.