ACLU says legal costs punish the poor

Late last month, President Barack Obama concluded his State of the Union address by reminding his fellow Americans of some of the principals the nation is built on – including a national desire “to promote justice and fairness and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.”

But there are new criticisms that equality under the law, especially financial equality, remains a dream for the nearly 7 million Americans – or close to 3 percent of the country's adult resident population – who 2012 statistics show were under the supervision of the nation's correctional systems.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been arguing for years that courts and judges in states across the country have been imposing a counterproductive debt system on people convicted of crimes – a system that a new ACLU report says punishes the poor and has little to no benefit for governments or the general public. What's more, it adds, these debt systems result “in some poor people being locked up in jail because they cannot afford to pay debts – a modern version of the despised debtors' prison.”

The new report focuses on Washington State and its system of Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs), the fees, fines, costs and restitution imposed by the state's courts on top of criminal sentences. According to the ACLU, these debts have a mandated interest rate of 12 percent annually, along with an additional $100 per year collection fee.

Given that the average LFO in Washington runs $2,540 per court case, it's unlikely a person living at the poverty line will ever pay off their debt. What's more, the ACLU says, these LFOs cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and many never expire.

“Our criminal justice system should help people re-enter their communities,” ACLU of Washington staff attorney Vanessa Hernandez said in a statement, “but excessive court-imposed debt is a formidable barrier. Unfair practices keep individuals tethered to the criminal justice system for years, sometimes for life.”

A big part of the problem is the link between the lack of education and job opportunities. According to the National Education Association, nearly 80 percent of individuals in U.S. prisons do not have a high school diploma. High school dropouts are 72 percent more likely to be unemployed, compared to high school graduates.

Given statistics like these, the ACLU says, it's no surprise that up to 60 percent of former inmates in Washington State remain unemployed one year after they've been released from prison. And former inmates who still owe legally sanctioned court costs and other related obligations often find themselves behind the financial eight-ball the moment they step outside the prison gates.

"In the time from being released to current, I have had four separate warrants issued for my arrest," Valerie Bodeau said during a recent press conference on the issue.

Bodeau, a mother of two, was convicted on drug charges and released from prison in 2007. She was assessed court fees of around $7,000. Without a job and no home, Bodeau said she unsuccessfully sought help in reducing her LFOs, which, with interest, now amount to around $10,000.

Some Washington State lawmakers have introduced a bill that would allow a court to waive or reduce interest on LFOs if the offender has made good faith efforts to pay their debt, and can show the accrued interest “is causing a significant hardship.”