On March 27, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill removing a significant barrier to people trying to re-establish their lives after serving time. Two island groups — Vashon Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and the Vashon Quakers — played a part in getting the legislation to the finish line.
Vashon SURJ is part of a national network of groups and individuals educating, mobilizing and organizing white people in a multiracial movement for racial justice. Last November, the Vashon chapter hosted a presentation called Re-Entry: Life After Incarceration, during which people who had previously been incarcerated spoke of the onerous burden of court-imposed legal financial obligations, or LFOs.
LFOs are fines, court costs and other fees — including “rent” during incarceration — imposed upon a person convicted of crimes. Previously, they accrued interest at a rate of 12 percent from the time of sentencing and were imposed regardless of whether a person is considered indigent. Many people come out of prison with LFOs as high as $10,000, and non-payment can be considered a violation of probation or parole. Offenders can find themselves with a warrant out for their arrest or back in custody for inability to pay the fees, perpetuating the cycle of incarceration and poverty, especially for minorities.
Local SURJ co-lead Janie Starr recalled the collective groan from attendees at the event when the speakers described the impact of their financial obligations.
“One African-American woman did her time on house arrest, but that didn’t mitigate against her LFOs. Since her release, she’s had a hard time getting a job because of her record, despite her college degree. She’s a single mom buried under tens of thousands of dollars in interest from the LFOs, which she told me she’ll die owing,” Starr said.
Vashon SURJ is committed to supporting Numbers to Names (N2N), community activists passionately serving people transitioning from prison, and to take on their request to reduce the deleterious impact of LFOs. A reform bill, HB 1783, was already in the legislative pipeline and needed support to get it to the governor’s desk by March 8.
“We realized this collaboration provided an opportunity to make a real impact on racial justice, given the disproportionate numbers of people of color incarcerated,” said Starr.
In a short, 60-day session, the bill had to be introduced and voted on in the House of Representatives and move through three Senate committees before being voted on by the full Senate. Then it had to be back to the House for a final vote, signed by both the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, and delivered to the governor for his signature.
Vashon SURJ joined a network of advocacy groups dedicated to LFO reform. Members drove down to the State House in Olympia on Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, for a lobby day organized by the Statewide Poverty Action Network. They were joined by representatives from the ACLU, I Did the Time and N2N. SURJ members met with Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon and staff from Rep. Eileen Cody and Sen. Sharon Nelson’s offices.
They emailed and called their representatives and key members of the committees urging passage of the bill and returned to Olympia on Feb. 7 for a public hearing by the Law and Justice Committee, where numerous people spoke in favor of the reform bill, from attorneys representing low-income people to the formerly incarcerated who had been personally impacted.
The Chief Criminal Judge for King County Superior Court described warrants being issued for people who failed to make their financial obligations. Advocates for victims’ services favored the bill because it prioritized restitution to victims over other payments. Several members of the clergy spoke of the moral imperative in society.
Quakers in Washington state had opposed LFOs for some time, and Vashon Quakers joined the effort. Three islanders traveled to Olympia on Feb. 16 to lobby for an end to LFOs as well as the death penalty.
“Persons who have served their time and are released from prison have a hard enough time getting a job and finding housing,” said Kate Hunter, a Vashon Quaker. “They don’t need the burden of punitive interest on debts that they can’t pay, as they try to reconstruct their lives and become productive citizens.”
“HB 1783 has been one of our Quaker priority issues for at least the last 10 years and is a great success to get it finally passed,” she said. “This law, which eliminates the 12 percent interest on non-restitution legal financial obligations, will help them rehabilitate their lives and make it less likely to drift back into crime in desperation.”
The bill also allows those who have already accrued interest to ask the court for relief and prohibits the imposition of fines and fees if a person is deemed indigent. It also allows for community restitution hours to be substituted for payment in some instances.
SURJ members are developing a plan to inform people working in the criminal justice system about the new law so they apply it correctly. They also want to educate formerly incarcerated people about ways to get relief from already accrued interest.
Members also continue to partner with N2N.
“An unintended benefit of N2N’s presentation last fall has been our ongoing relationship and opportunity to show up in solidarity with their efforts,” said Starr.
She recently received a message from one of the organizers that read, “We are so glad to have intentional advocates fighting for our behalf.”
— Alison Floyd and Lesley Reed are members of Vashon SURJ.