OLYMPIA – People convicted of a crime would have a better chance of paying off fines, court fees and restitution orders if the state drops its double-digit interest rate and changes the way the money is collected after they get out of jail or prison, a Senate committee was told Thursday.
A proposal that received overwhelming support in the House calls for the state to eliminate the 12 percent interest rates on fines and fees of what are known as legal financial obligations, and not impose some costs on a defendant who is indigent at the time of sentencing.
House Bill 1783 also rearranges the way money collected from a defendant is paid out on those LFOs, so that victims would receive full restitution before fines and court costs are paid.
Tara Simmons told the Senate Law and Justice Committee that because of the 12 percent interest rate, her $6,100 LFO grew to $7,600 when she finished a 20-month prison term for selling drugs in 2010. She had children to support, but could only get a job paying $900 a month. She thought about going back to selling drugs, but instead enrolled in law school to work on changing LFOs that she said keep people in “a cycle of poverty.”
Nick Allen, of Columbia Legal Services, called the current LFO law counterproductive because it’s not clear on how to determine a lack of ability to pay, which can allow some fees to be set aside. Some people who don’t pay their obligations are doing so not because of criminal intent, “but because they’re too poor to pay,” he said.
Rebecca Johnson, who represents sexual assault victims, supported the change to put victim restitution at the head of the line for money from the payments, and said those payments should not be exempted from that 12 percent interest rate. Victims often have to pay for their expenses with credit cards, and pay those bills off with interest, she said.
The bill passed the House 91-7 earlier this month and could get a committee vote as early as next week.