Today, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled that courts must take into consideration a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing discretionary legal financial obligations (LFOs). These are fees, fines, costs, and restitution imposed by courts on top of criminal sentences. The ruling represents a significant step towards reforming an LFO system that traps people in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. In its ruling, the Court cited to the amicus brief prepared by ACLU-WA, the Washington Defender Association, and other allies and to the national ACLU’s 2010 report “In for a Penny.”
The Court held in State v. Blazina that trial courts must make “an individualized inquiry into the defendant’s current and future ability to pay” before imposing court costs, and must “consider important factors, such as incarceration and the defendant’s other debts.” Moreover, the Court stated that if a person meets established criteria for determining indigence (like receiving needs-based public assistance or having an income at or below the poverty level), courts should “seriously question that person’s ability to pay LFOs.”
In the case, an indigent criminal defendant was ordered to pay thousands of dollars in court costs, including the cost of a public defender, without any inquiry into or consideration of his ability to pay. The lead opinion cited “national and local cries for reform of broken LFO systems,” including the ACLU. The Court agreed with us that Washington’s LFO system “carries problematic consequences” including a 12% interest rate and additional collections fees, and subjects individuals to long-term court jurisdiction. This, said the Court, “inhibits reentry” causing “serious negative consequences on employment, on housing, and on finances.”
The ACLU-WA supports further reforms of our LFO system, including passage of HB 1390 by the state legislature. The measure would fully implement the Court’s guidance on LFOs and would reform other problematic features of the system such as the exorbitant interest rates on LFOs, the lack of priority of payment to victims, and the use of jail time for indigent people who cannot pay their LFOs.