Reducing the Burden of Legal Financial Obligations in Washington State
Between 80% and 90% of individuals charged with criminal offenses qualify for indigent defense and court appointed legal counsel. By race, White, Hispanic, and Black formally incarcerated men have incurred legal debt that comprises 60%, 36% and 50% of their annual earnings respectively. Incarceration reduces employment and community income, deepening poverty and aggravating the criminalization of poverty.
Legal debt limits access to housing, credit, and employment, and limits the educational or occupational opportunities that may provide economic mobility and improvement. Legal financial obligations present a dangerously unique variety of debt in that it cannot be absolved through bankruptcy processes, and it may result in arrest warrants and incarceration. For those who often rely solely on government assistance to provide for themselves and their families, legal debt can create a situation in which an individual would have to choose between paying for food, medicine, rent, and child support, for example. Legal debt can often be a lifetime sentence emerging from the intersection of low earning power of an individual, the magnitude of the sanctions imposed, and the accrual of interest.
Monetary punishment does not act as a deterrence of crime because often, monetary sanctions are imposed arbitrarily at the discretion of the judge, and therefore cannot be a uniformly certain deterrence mechanism.