Driving While Poor: The Cycle of Court Debt

Driving While Poor

Poor people across the country are often faced with a vicious cycle of losing their drivers license over court debt. A few states have reconsidered the policy amid concerns that it hurts low-income residents without achieving its intended goals. In 2013, Washington stopped suspending licenses for failure to pay nonmoving violations like expired registrations, but that doesn’t go far enough to help people access employment that can pay court debt and fines and if you can’t get to work, how will you pay off the debt? Many people risk it anyways and non-moving violations becomes moving violations. Driving while license suspended is a gross misdemeanor.

In Washington State, The first Driving While License Suspended conviction is punished by imprisonment for not less than ten days. The second conviction is punished by imprisonment for not less than ninety days. The third or subsequent conviction, the person shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one hundred eighty days. (RCW 46.20.342)

In April 2015, Ashley Sprague was making $2.13 an hour plus tips as a waitress at Waffle House when she was pulled over for speeding in a small city near her home outside Nashville. The speeding ticket, plus another citation for failure to have proof of insurance, totaled $477.50, a sum that might as well have been a million dollars. Over the course of the next 13 months, she was cited twice more for administrative infractions, including — she was surprised to discover — driving on a suspended license. Tennessee is one of 43 states, plus the District of Columbia, that suspends driver’s licenses for people with unpaid court debt, according a recent report by the Legal Aid Justice Center, a Virginia-based organization that filed a lawsuit there challenging the practice. (Published by the Marshal Project)

43 States Suspend Licenses for Unpaid Court Debt, But That Could Change Lawsuits say the practice severely penalizes those too poor to pay. If they can’t drive, they can’t work; if they can’t work, they can’t pay; if they can’t pay, they can’t drive.


The Additional Fee of Committing a Crime While Poor

In Washington State, non-violent offenders who met certain criteria are eligible to have their criminal records sealed after 5 or 10 years depending on the level of their offense. Sealing their record helps remove barriers to employment, housing, and community reentry – and allows them to have a fresh start. A cycle of court debt prevents people who are poor from successful re-entry, far after they have paid for the crime.

“Washington State felons may request that their record is sealed after completion of all of the conditions of their sentence. This means that prospective employers and others will not see their conviction in the criminal record database. However, completion of all sentencing conditions, including payment of legal debt, is a prerequisite for expunction (RCW 9.94A.640).”

We already know that there is a direct correlation between poverty and criminality and recent studies suggest these additional legal financial obligations (LFOs) actually compound disadvantages in a number of areas that may contribute to continued criminal activity and recidivism. A recent study by the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission, “The Assessment and Consequences of Legal Financial Obligations in Washington State“, finds LFOs have a number of negative affects on people, particular those living below the poverty level and/or providing financial support for children; including:

  • Reducing family income
  • Limiting access to housing, credit, transportation and employment
  • Hindrance to education and occupational situations
  • Prioritizing LFO payments over rent, utilities, food and childcare
  • Contributing to racial social justice disparities
  • Inability to seal of vacate their criminal record after 10 years

As we consider policies related to the Washington State Criminal Justice system, it’s important that we prioritize a path to successful reintegration and give people the opportunity to become productive citizens.


Why are LFO’s Important?

Legal Financial Obligations have been identified as a means to hold offenders accountable to victims, counties, cities, the state, municipalities, and society for the assessed costs associated with their crimes and to recoup or at least defray a portion of the loss associated with the costs of felonious behavior. Every felony conviction is currently subject to a $500 victim penalty assessment and the court has the ability to charge an additional 17 different types of fees authorized by legislation that range from $100 per jail day to $2,000 per drug conviction 1. These fees provide a substantial amount of money into the court system, but they also have the net affect of tying successful offender reentry to ability to pay debt. In 2012, County Clerks reported $29 million in legal financial obligations collected from offenders among four categories:

  • Restitution $12.8 million
  • Crime Victim Penalties $1.7 million
  • State Revenue $3.4 million
  • County Cost Recoupment $11.1 million
  • Total $29.2 million

It is important to note that while LFO’s are a substantial source of revenue for Washington State, the amount collected is less then 1.7 percent of the Department of Corrections biennial budget. These fees also incurred a substantial amount of cost to collect. At one point the State of Washington spent $53 million dollars annually to collect these fees. Those costs have been significantly reduced by eliminating sending bills to people that owe these obligations. In a 2012 report to the Governor and Legislature, James McMahan, Executive Director of the Washington Association of County Officials offered this statement related to the change in collections,

“Many defendants receive no billings at all! We are not aware of any other collection-oriented enterprise that expects its consumers to make regular, monthly payments without the benefit of receiving monthly bills. Unlike consumers of these other businesses, clerks customers are in violation of their Superior Court sentences when they fail to make regular, monthly payments.”


If a [customer] fails to make the monthly payments the consequences not only include a continued indebtedness, but also a continued involvement with the justice system and possibility of incurring additional LFO in the the process.


Complications of LFOs

Policymakers are faced with a complicated set of issues in how it collects LFO’s and the barriers it places on people trying to successfully reintegrate as a contributing member of society. LFO’s have the effect of exacerbating the many difficulties associated with the re-entry process. They can hinder people’s efforts to improve their education and occupational situations and created incentives to avoid work. Another study, Drawing Blood from Stones: Legal Debt and Social Inequality in the Contemporary United States, by Alexes Harris, Heather Evans, and Katherine Beckett found,

“This indebtedness reproduces disadvantage by reducing family income, by limiting access to opportunities and resources such as housing, credit, transportation, and employment; and by increasing the likelihood of ongoing criminal justice involvement”.


Possibly the most important transitions for reintegration is the sealing of individual criminal records. LFO’s make this extremely difficult because the 5 or 10 year clock does not even start until all fees are paid. This could take people in poverty years to have the resources to pay fees and pay for shelter and food. They may also not be aware of all of the fees, since they never receive a bill.


Recommended Solution

Washington State Legislature should explore removing the requirement of having paid financial obligations to the sealing of criminal records after 10 years have passed.


Alternative Solutions

Alexes Harris, Heather Evans, and Katherine Beckett introduced 4 alternative solutions to address this issues in their research “The Assessment and Consequences of Legal Financial Obligations in Washington State”. They recommended the following:

  1. Place a moratorium on the assessment of all LFOs other than restitution orders and the currently mandatory $500 Victim Penalty Assessment fee until the concerns identified are adequately addressed. They also recommend that neither of these LFOs be subject to interest.
  2. Adopt a broader and more flexible conception of accountability that allows indigent defendants to convert monetary LFOs to community service obligations and/or the provision of services for the persons directly harmed by their prior criminal behavior.
  3. Adopt legislation that automatically restores the civil rights of Washington State residents with a felony completion upon completion of their confinement sentence.
  4. Create a statewide database that would consolidate information about legal debt from all counties and all sources, including municipal, superior, and district courts as well as the Department of Corrections.


The Assessment of Legal Financial Obligations in Washington State. (2008)  Washington State Minority and Justice Commission Washington State Supreme Court.  from http://www.courts.wa.gov/committee/pdf/2008LFO_report.pdf

Alexes Harris, Heather Evans, and Katherine Beckett. (2010) Drawing Blood from Stones. Seattle: University of Washington Retrieved from: http://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/2010-Blood-from-Stones-AJSj.pdf

Washington Association of County Officials. (2012) LFO: Report to Washington State Legislature. Olympia. Retrieved from: http://www.wacounties.org/waco/LFOreport/2012%20LFO%20-5990%20Report.pdf




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