Opinion

WEDNESDAY, MAY 27, 2009

Our View: Jailing debtors often puts undue strain on taxpayers

If lawbreakers are inconvenienced by the consequences of their own antisocial choices, so be it. They’ll find no sympathy here.

But taxpayers shouldn’t be saddled with needless burdens in the bargain.

That’s what leads us to believe some adjustments are in order in the way Washington state in general and Spokane County in particular collect the fines, fees and restitution obligations that courts assess against convicted offenders.

As reported Sunday by The Spokesman-Review’s Jody Lawrence-Turner, the cost of housing criminals who are returned to jail for nonpayment of their legal financial obligations – LFOs in criminal justice lingo – has been estimated at $3 million a year by assistant public defender April Pearce.

Yet when released felons and misdemeanants neglect to pay what they owe their victims and the county, the prevailing method for getting their attention is to put them in jail, where they are even less likely to have income-producing opportunities.

Admittedly, if the offender is willfully holding back, a little pressure may work to the advantage of crime victims whose court-ordered restitution has first claim on any payments. But when the criminal has minimal income because of a lack of marketable skills, the jail time may not recoup enough to cover the added public expense. That’s counterproductive.

Meanwhile, the offender’s debt accrues interest at the legislated rate of 12 percent, making the chances of catching up harder and the likelihood of more jail time greater. So the spiral continues.

The jail where these people spend part of their time needs replacement, according to Spokane County officials. The new one they want would cost $245 million. Before voters agree to pay for it, they might want the comfort of knowing the cells will be housing crooks rather than debtors.

The job of collecting legal financial obligations fell on county clerks following the 2003 legislative session, and Spokane County Clerk Tom Fallquist says it’s become his biggest challenge, with 2,500 new cases coming in the door each year. At the same time, the work may expand to include old fees that were incurred when some offenders were in the juvenile justice system.

Fallquist says Spokane County is considering whether the collection process could be turned over to collection agencies. The idea is worth pursuing. Kootenai County did that and has freed space in its own aging, overcrowded jail.

But the Legislature has a role, too, say by reconsidering whether incarceration is the best way to collect debts after the original sentence for a crime has been served. It also might consider whether 12 percent interest is realistic for debtors whose ability to pay is often limited.

Authorities should spare no effort in collecting restitution on behalf of victims. Unless they come up with a more efficient way of collecting fines and fees, though, they risk making victims of the taxpayers.



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