May 24, 2009 in City

Debt to society

Unpaid court fees can land released convicts back in jail
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Spokane County Public Defender Scott Mason talks with a client who had been summoned to the Spokane County clerk’s office to explain why she hadn’t paid a court-ordered judgment. Sometimes the result is jail time.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Growing backlog

Spokane County has 40,848 cases carrying a balance for debts owed to the courts, including restitution. Those fines total nearly $125.5 million. The caseload increases by about 2,500 each year.

Michael Lafferty has served more time in Spokane County Jail for failure to pay his court fees and fines than for his original third-degree assault conviction.

Lafferty was 19 when he was sentenced to serve less than three months for his crime, a first offense. A Superior Court judge ordered him to pay $2,207.19 in court fees and restitution. Under Washington statute, the debt began accruing 12 percent interest the day he went to jail.

He’s now been jailed 75 additional days – at a cost to taxpayers of $6,100 – because he has failed to pay the fines. With accumulating interest, his debt is nearing $3,000. On any given day, up to 200 of the roughly 1,200 people behind bars in Spokane County Jail and Geiger Corrections Center are there for reasons stemming from failure to pay their court debts – something the courts call legal financial obligations.

Washington is one of a handful of states that jails people for court debt or charges related to that debt. It crowds the jails and penalizes the poor, making it harder for them to re-enter society, criminal justice experts and advocates for the low-income say.

“From the outside looking in, it’s a modern-day debtor’s prison,” said Spokane County Public Defender John Rodgers.

Spokane County officials are preparing to ask voters to approve a property tax increase to build a new jail. The new facility would cost an estimated $245 million and have an annual operations budget of more than $8 million.

Asked if locking up people for court debt is considered an effective use of jail space, Spokane County Undersheriff Jeff Tower said, “We do what we are mandated to do by the courts.”

County Commissioner Mark Richard acknowledged the jail is overcrowded. But, he said, “if they fail to comply with the rules of the court, something needs to happen to get their attention.”

It’s an issue worth studying, he added. “My gut tells me there are a percentage of them that shouldn’t be there.”

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann C. Moreno said the county’s approach to collecting court debts has been successful in getting restitution for victims. She said she’s aware many felons are poor, but added that people need to be held accountable.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” she said.

Breean Beggs, executive director of the Center for Justice, which often represents low-income clients, said that in his view, “poverty should not be the top priority in terms of putting people in jail. It’s a diversion of our resources.”

Judges have leeway when imposing fees

Any person convicted of a felony in Washington can be assessed court fees, fines and restitution. The amounts vary significantly from county to county, a recent state study on legal financial obligations showed. Other than a mandatory $500 charge for a “victim penalty assessment,” judges have broad latitude on what charges to impose, according to state statute. They can include, for example, $150 for delaying prosecution, $250 per juror for a 12-member jury, $100 for a crime lab analysis fee and the costs of extradition. Spokane County frequently charges a $50 warrant fee.

Add the 12 percent interest, and it becomes a difficult hurdle for a low-income person. If a person pays $50 a per month on a $2,540 debt, it will take almost six years to pay it off at 12 percent annual interest, the study showed.

“I’ve always thought the interest was too high,” said Gary Berg, chief deputy of the Spokane County clerk’s office. But “the changes have to be legislative,” he said.

Neither Oregon nor Idaho charges interest on debts owed to the court, according to court officials in those states.

And, “we absolutely don’t have people sitting in jail because they owe court fines,” said Marion County Prosecutor Walt Beglau in Salem, Ore.

‘Ensnared in the criminal justice system’

A criminal penalty for failing to pay court debts is counterproductive to reducing recidivism and helping convicted criminals successfully re-enter society, according to the state study released earlier this year.

Failure to make regular legal financial obligation payments means that many of those who owe money, even if it’s their first conviction, can become “ensnared in the criminal justice system long after they’ve completed their original sentences,” according to the study.

“No collections agencies have the power to put people into jail,” Beggs said. “The clerk’s office does, and it’s like they just go to that.”

Paying off court debt is a term of parole. Like other terms of parole, failure to comply can result in more jail time, said April Pearce, a Spokane County public defender.

People found in violation can be jailed anywhere from a few days to as much as eight months, according to the Spokane County public defender’s office and a handful of inmates interviewed by The Spokesman-Review. While in jail, interest keeps accruing on the unpaid fines.

Pearce, who for a year represented those with legal financial obligations, said she tracked how long people spent behind bars and calculated the expense of housing them. Her estimate: Spokane County spent $3 million over the course of the year, not including booking fees, any medications or other expenses involved with incarceration.

According to a state report released last year, the amount of court debts collected increased by 45 percent from 2003 to 2008. Restitution payments increased by 87 percent in those five years.

During the same time period, the amount of money owed to the courts, including restitution, nearly doubled in Spokane County.

Nearly all felons are impoverished

A debt owed to the court, criminal justice experts say, is one most convicted felons will never be able to pay, and Washington law allows the debt to hang over a person’s head for the rest of his or her life.

If ex-prisoners miss a payment or fail to communicate with the county clerk’s office, they can be put in jail if a judge determines they made a choice not to pay.

“The court has quite a bit of discretion when it comes to determining if a person is refusing to pay,” said Rodgers, the Spokane County public defender.

Nationally, 80 percent of those charged with felony offenses are indigent, according to a New York Bar Association study.

Lafferty, who was extradited by Spokane County from Oregon City, Ore., said he lives on a monthly Social Security disability income of $674. He admits it’s unlikely he’ll pay off his debt.

Pearce, of the public defender’s office, said: “This is what keeps me awake: Locking these people up when they make about $300 per month. It’s like nobody can ever get from underneath the system even if they tried.

“It bothers me because it doesn’t punish crime,” she said. “It punishes people because they are poor.”

Of a handful of people serving time recently in Spokane County Jail or Geiger Corrections Center for failure to pay their court debts, two said they were on Social Security disability, one was on welfare and another was on the state’s general assistance/unemployable program.

Robert Stanley, 33, was in drug therapy at Union Gospel Mission when he was arrested and booked into jail.

Jason Wagner, 33, just moved back to Spokane from Texas to take custody of his son when he was locked up.

“This messed up trust with my family; they think I committed another crime,” Wagner said. “I thought I was done paying.”

Wagner offered to give the county collections officer who visited him in the jail his last $240, but she declined it, he said.

Another woman interviewed at the county courthouse, who didn’t want to give her name, said her income is less than $400 per month and she’s being asked to make $50-a-month payments on her court debt.

Beggs, of the Center for Justice, said, “Spokane County makes it so undoable.”

Officials at the county clerk’s office, which is responsible for collecting the debt, insist they are flexible by allowing payments as small as $5 per month. But a review of court records – and the stories of those interviewed – didn’t turn up a payment lower than $25.

“We want some accountability, but we have to make it attainable,” said consultant David Bennett, who was hired to evaluate Spokane County’s criminal justice system. “The role of the jail when it comes to punishing people who can’t pay has to be re-evaluated.”

Collection agency boosted payments

The law allows Spokane County to use a collection agency rather than county employees to track down those who owe debts.

Kootenai County moved to a collection-agency system seven years ago, and “it has been quite effective,” said Kootenai County Clerk Dan English.

It has boosted payments and freed up space in the county jail because the ultimate penalty isn’t jail time, as it is in Spokane County.

In 2002, Kootenai County collected an average of $3,900 per week, officials said. Now, it’s about $8,000.

“It reduced a lot of failure to pay. With jail space at a premium, and the cost to jail them, it seemed like a better option,” English said.

Spokane County Clerk Tom Fallquist said, “We are still evaluating collections as an option,” although he noted that collection-agency fees can be even higher than the 12 percent interest from the state.

Oregon frequently assigns community service to those who owe fines or court fees but not restitution.

This works especially well for people who are unemployed or not very employable, said Salem’s Beglau.

“Governments can’t afford to continue to build jails,” Beglau said. “The more alternatives you can find, the better off you are going to be.”

Contact Jody Lawrence-Turner at jodyl@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5593.

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