A new state law will improve economic security for people who’ve been incarcerated

But supporters of the Washington legislation will need to ensure it is fully and effectively implemented.

June 12, 2023 5:43 pm

(Getty Images)

Thanks to the tireless advocacy of people impacted by the criminal legal system and community leaders calling for reforms, Washington state policymakers this year enacted a law to improve the well-being of people moving forward with their lives after a conviction. They will now no longer face crushing financial debt imposed by courts if they are unable to pay fines and fees. This means thousands of people in Washington will have greater access to economic opportunity as they return home after prison. 

Specifically, the new law removes mandatory, non-restitution criminal offense fines and fees (which I’ll refer to as legal financial obligations, or LFOs) for adults experiencing poverty and all youth. It also eliminates the remaining discretionary LFOs on the books for people under 18 or people who were under 18 when they previously received their convictions. Further, it provides new sources of public funding for court services so county courts can move away from imposing fines and fees to balance their budgets.

Now it is essential that community leaders, advocates, and others who support people upon re-entry help make sure judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys know about this new law, and make sure that current and formerly incarcerated people know how to petition to waive their debt. And we must all combat false narratives that spread misinformation about what this new law does.

The truth is – and researchers, advocates, and impacted people have long said – that these fines and fees perpetuate our two-tiered legal system, where one’s ability to pay determines how light or harsh a punishment may be. People with enough money can be convicted of an offense and pay off their fines with limited long-term consequences. While those who can’t afford to pay can be convicted of the same offense, but face difficulties that go on for years as a result. The debt can alienate them from friends and family, create difficulties with employment and paying for basic needs, and raise the odds of recidivism.

When people who are formerly incarcerated can return home without experiencing the burden that fines and fees debt creates, they have a better shot at making ends meet, finding a job, and engaging with their loved ones in meaningful ways. As a result of the new law, those working within the court system will be able to help more people get LFO relief during and after sentencing. But because it can take time for the details of new laws to become understood and institutionalized, we must ensure that attorneys and judges in all 39 Washington counties know they must do away with the fines and fees the law covers.

Additionally, the petition process for qualifying adults and youth with LFO debt to waive outstanding fines and fees should be as easy and accessible as possible. (Of course, it would be better if the debt could be outright eliminated and forgiven, but we have to start somewhere.) 

To further ensure smooth statewide implementation, public officials also need to address falsehoods fanned by opponents. Contrary to what some will have you believe, the eliminated LFOs in this commonsense new law have nothing to do with restitution for the harmed parties. Restitution for victims is not paid for by these fines and fees.

LFOs also do not – and were never designed to – lead to so-called public safety. Instead, they are part of a legal system that was historically designed to punish poor people, Black and Indigenous people, and other people of color without any real possibility for redemption or repair. Fines and fees were designed to extract money from people entangled in the judicial system to fund court and government services. 

During public testimonies and coalition meetings in support of LFO reforms, people regularly share stories of facing extreme financial hardship upon re-entry because of fines and fees and their associated interest rates. State Rep. Tarra Simmons, Washington’s first formerly incarcerated legislator, was the champion behind this new law in part because she, too, understands this experience firsthand. 

This law is a huge win for so many people – and their loved ones – throughout our state. While there’s more work to be done, it’s nevertheless a good moment to celebrate progress while also holding public officials to account to make sure this law is fully and effectively implemented.

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Evan Walker
Evan Walker

Evan Walker is a senior policy analyst at the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, an organization that works to advance the economic well-being of people in Washington. His research looks at social and legal monetary sanctions policy, with a focus on how criminal legal system fines and fees impact people’s socioeconomic security.