Accomplished attorney, documentary photographer, and longtime Hub member Debbie Espinosa presented at our July community lunch which explored the injustice of Legal Financial Obligations. LFOs refers to both discretionary and mandatory legal fees imposed upon defendants at the moment of conviction. These fees can range from $25 to $5000 and have a shockingly high interest rate of 12% in Washington State, which begins accruing immediately. Once defendants leave prison, they have 30 days to begin LFO payments or they risk arrest. The end result? People who emerge from prison hoping to build better lives and are instead burdened with incredible amounts of inescapable debt.
Debbie introduced her friend and colleague Carmen Pacheco-Jones, whose story illuminates the power of resilience and hope in the midst of a broken judicial system. Carmen is currently an educator working with women who have experienced extreme trauma, such as sexual abuse and assault. This is an area that touches deep for Carmen. “That’s both my history and past,” she says.
Carmen became a ward of the state at 12 years old and moved through 13 different foster and group homes before finding herself on the streets. She became a victim of human trafficking, found out she was pregnant with her first child, and began battling addiction. Over the years, she struggled to support her five children and was convicted of welfare check forgery.
While in prison, Carmen was charged $89 a day simply to be incarcerated. The system left Carmen unable to become a thriving member of society, as she left jail with over $40,000 in accrued LFO debt. She recalls moments when she had to miss rent payments or turn off her electricity in order to make her monthly LFO payment. Now, Carmen is 18 years clean and is proudly watching her children attend college and her grandchildren live life outside the child welfare system. She successfully completed her GED and bachelor’s degree, but every month she continues to make payments on $8000 of remaining debt.
“The system is so broken it prevents people from starting over and creating a new life,” says Carmen, adding that in some circumstances, employed co-defendants are forced to pay unemployed co-defendants’ LFOs. “I don’t understand how a court system which presents [itself] as rehabilitative penalizes people who are working.”
Even worse, some public defenders never inform their clients about LFOs. Debbie interviewed a woman named Traci, who was arrested and spent 58 days in jail for failure to pay LFOs that she never even knew she had. “I lost my children, I lost my Section 8 housing … I was shattered,” Traci said. “So I just slipped right back into addiction for the next seven or eight years. I didn’t know what else to do.”
This past spring, the ACLU and various NGOs pushed forward a bill to reform LFO debt by reducing the interest rate. Ultimately, the bill did not pass the Washington state legislature, which Debbie attributes to the legislature’s vested interest in preserving the LFO revenue stream.
The first LFO payment is required 30 days after release from jail, a time when many are trying to find suitable housing and a stable job. Finding a job can be a huge challenge for former convicts. “I’m offended to my core, shocked by the amount of stigma around this issue,” Debbie reiterates. There seems to be a never ending cycle of struggle, and individuals are still marginalized even outside the prison system.
But there is always hope. Here are ways that Impact Hub members and the community can help:
- Stay informed and tell friends about the LFO policy and its impacts.
- Share your opinions with your local and state legislative representatives on this issue.
- Support businesses with second-chance friendly hiring policy, or implement this policy in your own business.
- Support non-profit organizations that assist people with re-entry issues.