Harris and her team found a great deal of variation among these counties, despite the fact that they were all applying the same statute. The state legislature established a code for legal financial obligations in the 1980s to “help recoup expenses, to establish accountability for defendants, and to also structure sentencing,” according to Harris.
Beyond the obvious impact of creating financial debt—with 12 percent interest and a $100 surcharge annually—the LFOs lead to constant contact with the criminal-justice system, even if a person pays. Every month payments are due at the courthouse or online, with costs added for using credit cards. For people who can’t pay, the debt “creates this shadow of the criminal-justice system in their lives constantly. They’re worried about being picked up,” Harris said. The statute states: “When any person is found guilty in any superior court of having committed a crime, except as provided in subsection (2) of this section, there shall be imposed by the court upon such convicted person a penalty assessment.”
“I saw people picked up on nonpayment warrants for sleeping in the park because they were homeless,” Harris said. Hauling people to jail is possible because, as far as the law is concerned, monetary sanctions are the same as prison sentences, community service, and probation: Once a person is out of compliance, they can be taken into custody.
“LFOs, per statute, are the responsibility of the administrative office of the court. They’re a function of the judicial system,” said Jeremy Barclay, the communications director for the Washington Department of Corrections. He explained that LFOs are assessed “at the time of sentencing by the court, not at the time the individual [goes] to prison.” He wrote in an email that, for the most part, “LFOs do not grow once the individual is released from custody with two notable exceptions: open restitution orders for ongoing expenses to a victim or an ongoing assessment of interest.” Additionally, by law, LFOs for offenses on or after July 1, 2000, remain outstanding until paid in full.
The imposition of LFOs has the effect of further burdening individuals whose reentry into society is already hindered by obstacles, it can make them even more dependent on families that may already struggle due to their prolonged absence while behind bars, and it delegitimates the role of government in their eyes since they perceive the fines as extensions of a penalty they have already satisfied. In her book, Harris writes: “Debtors cannot regain certain rights lost upon conviction, such as the right to vote, carry a weapon, serve on juries, or run for elected office, until their account is paid in full.”
Harris and a team of graduate students looked at all 50 states, and found that each allows for the imposition of fines on defendants. Some 63 percent of states also allow additional fines due to nonpayment of LFOs. “That is, for example, charges are imposed on people if they enter into a payment plan, interest is charged on unpaid balances, and collection surcharges are also imposed,” she said. Of those states, 70 percent charge extra for carrying a balance. “Basically, if you’re poor and unable to make the full payment, then you will be charged more.” About 71 percent charge for a public attorney. About 92 percent incarcerate for nonpayment, which is seen as a violation of a sentence. Though national figures do not exist, a White House Council of Economic Advisers brief offers details on multiple states’ individual practices.