Retaining their mandatory nature are: restitution in
Superior Court, absent extraordinary circumstances; the $500
victim penalty assessment (VPA) in Superior Court; and the
$250 VPA in limited jurisdiction courts. Where the defendant
is indigent, costs and certain other discretionary LFOs must
now be waived.
Historically, some judges defended imposing discretionary LFOs on the poor “for their own good” or “to hold
them accountable.” Others say it provides deterrence from
committing future crimes by reminding the defendant, in
every payment made, of the costs of having offended. This
is a “wages of sin” argument. Another explanation offered is
that LFOs act as a sort of forced expression of remorse over
committing a crime. Some judges simply impose LFOs as
Such moralizing justifications ignore two key factors. First,
the deleterious effects of court debt on the poor are substantial and unnecessary
obstacles to reentry. High
LFO debt that a person
can never pay off can
ruin credit and hence any
ability to secure housing
or a job, and lead to jail
for failure to pay. Many
people dragging this ball
and chain just give up;
some return to crime.
Second, the reality is that having a conviction means lifetime
punishment because of its negative effects on getting a job,
housing, credit, government benefits, student loans and more.
The conviction itself can consign a person to a permanent
underclass, and this is more than adequate punishment in many
cases. At a certain point, the person has suffered enough.
As for Ferguson and trial court funding with LFOs, this is
the elephant in the room. LFO revenue helps fund many trial
courts across the state, to varying degrees. Unsurprisingly,
trial judges experience indirect, and sometimes direct, pressure from county and municipal governments to impose and
It’s not unusual for judges who request additional court
funding to be told to collect more in LFOs. This leads to trial
courts balancing their budgets on the backs of the poor with
LFO revenue. As a retiring District Court judge remarked
recently: “During my tenure, I’ve broken even or made money
every year.” In response, Judge Scott Ahfl, president of the
Washington District and Municipal Court Judges Association,
said, “We are not in the business to pay for ourselves, [w]e are
here to dispense justice.”
Indeed, many judges across the state supported the recent
LFO reform bill. The Superior Court Judges Association
(SCJA) made its passage a priority for the organization.
Some courts historically do not impose LFOs on indi-
gents and don’t get pressured by local government to do so.
King County Superior Court judges, for example, have long
followed a de facto policy of imposing only mandatory LFOs
unless the defendant has some financial means.
Approximately 90 percent of criminal defendants qualify
for appointed counsel. We consider these defendants to be
indigent. In King County Superior Court, LFOs are collected
through the clerk’s office, and not enforced by jail time unless
as a last resort for restitution when the defendant clearly has
the ability to pay and the victim needs it.
The loss of revenue from LFOs for many trial courts is
likely to be substantial. In Clallam County, according to the
court administrator, the new LFO bill and appellate decisions
consistent therewith will likely result in the loss of $880,000
That’s a big problem because of woefully inadequate
funding from the State for trial courts. Washington ranks near
the bottom of the 50 states
in state funding for trial
court operations. The State
sets aside less than 1 percent
of its budget to fund courts,
prosecution and indigent
defense. Counties and cities
provide approximately 90
percent of the total funding.
This unbalanced equa-
tion is traceable to the 1889
Washington Constitution that laid most of the burden on local
government. The reason is that, at the time, many city and
county governments were more established than the state
Tracing the money collected from LFOs and determining
the fiscal costs of enforcement are the subjects of an LFO
study under way. In 2016, the State, through the Minority and
Justice Commission (MJC), received a Department of Justice
grant to study all aspects of the LFO system. SCJA is interested particularly in whether courts are effectively self-funding,
as well as the collection and enforcement costs associated
with the various types of LFOs. The results of the study may
help inform any future LFO reform bills that may be introduced in the next legislative session. NWL
1. “Judge halts pay or appear: New state law to impact finances in Clallam, Jefferson counties,” Peninsula Daily News, April 23, 2018: https://
This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue
of the King County Bar Association Bar Bulletin ©2018.
Reprinted with permission of the King County Bar Association.
THE DELETERIOUS EFFECTS OF
COURT DEBT ON THE POOR ARE
SUBSTANTIAL AND UNNECESSARY
OBSTACLES TO REENTRY.