Legislative Reforms for Washington State’s Criminal Monetary Penalties

Michael L. Vander Giessen, Legislative Reforms for Washington State’s Criminal Monetary Penalties, 47 Gonz. L. Rev. 547 (2011)


Balancing the present racial and ethnic disparities in Washington’s criminal justice system requires state legislators to carefully assess contributing factors and seriously consider sentencing reforms.1 One contributing factor can be found in Washington’s laws governing criminal monetary penalties, known as legal financial obligations (“LFOs”).  Many have criticized LFOs as creating de facto debtors’ prisons that disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities.  These critics have also identified potential reforms but offered little practical guidance on how to implement them in Washington.  As a complement to their work, this note offers a discussion draft of proposed legislation. Specifically, this note proposes that the Washington State Legislature alleviate the negative effects of LFOs by enacting legislation with four results: first, structuring the amount of nonrestitution LFOs to reflect the seriousness of the offense and the offender’s ability to pay; second, repealing the interest accrual on nonrestitution LFOs; third, reducing the annual interest rate on restitution LFOs from twelve percent to six percent; and finally, empowering the sentencing court to modify or convert nonrestitution LFOs when the offender’s financial circumstances change.

In Part II, this note explains the current law on LFOs and the challenges these standards present for criminal offenders and their families, especially racial and ethnic minorities. Part III explores the various historical responses to these problems, including the issues that have been litigated, the policy recommendations that have been made, and the legislative action that has resulted. Part IV proposes significant changes, explains their underlying policies, and considers how they would fit in with existing law. Part V concludes this note with a call for a comprehensive legislative response. The appendix sets forth a discussion draft of the proposed legislation.

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