Capital debt: Experts and activists say court-imposed debt can undermine the reintegration process for the tens of thousands of ex-convicts living in precarious states around Washington. Thanks, in part, to the example of a local woman who sought and successfully received relief from her legal financial obligations in court, Walla Walla County is at the forefront of widespread efforts for reform.
Some might say Lisa Meyer owed a debt to society.
Dazed, recovering from major surgery and beset by chronic health problems, she sold, according to the Walla Walla Police Department, 23 pills of prescription oxycodone to a friend’s acquaintance who also happened to be an informant wearing a wire.
For her transgressions, a Walla Walla County Superior Court judge sentenced Meyer to 20 months in prison.
After serving 13 — sufficient, with good behavior, for release — Meyer found herself saddled with another kind of debt, the court-imposed fines, fees and, in some cases restitution, known as legal financial obligations.
In facing what seemed an insurmountable payment plan, given her economic prospects, Meyer was not alone.
The vast majority of people in the Washington state legal system face some form of court-imposed debt, which could range from Meyer’s relatively modest $1,487.60, pre-interest, to upward of tens of thousands of dollars.
Convicted criminals in Washington are overwhelmingly poor, and many of these debtors are, like Meyer, without a regular income. And while, according to some legal experts, the law has long said that courts should take into account a person’s ability to pay when imposing discretionary legal financial obligations, numerous stakeholders have told the Union-Bulletin that courts statewide have too-often neglected to consider a person’s individual circumstances when imposing the debt.
In a 2014 report called “Modern-Day Debtors Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor,” Seattle-based Columbia Legal Services and the ACLU of Washington described excessive LFO imposition as “a counterproductive system that punishes people for their poverty and harms lives yet brings little benefit to government or society.”
But recent years have brought a sea change in both the law and its interpretation statewide, particularly here in Walla Walla County, where in 2017, according to the Clerk’s Office, over 5,000 open LFO accounts were holding a collective debt, excluding interest, surpassing $16 million.
While the debts mostly persist — the county only received $279,000 in payments last year — experts say Walla Walla Superior Court has made strides for LFO reform that could provide these debtors some measure of relief and protect future ex-cons from similar fates.
For this, much credit may belong with Meyer.
With determined legal help, access to basic information as well as uncommon personal persistence, Meyer, in 2015, became among the earliest in the state to get LFO relief from an earlier judgment that failed to meet the standards of a landmark State Supreme Court decision. Her case and its aftermath raised awareness of the widespread problem among stakeholders and pioneered the use of a template by which scores of future ex-convicts could get LFO relief.
“When I first started this, it was all about me. It was all about me ‘cuz I could,” said Meyer snickering in the rough cadence of a Cartoon Network super villain. “They gave me the knowledge, and now I’m gonna go make them comply with their own law, and I liked it.”
But “once I got started,” she said, her tone softening, “I realized it didn’t have a damn thing to do with me.”
‘Just a sick old lady’
In the summer of 2017, Meyer, a petite woman with dark skin and an amicable, if somewhat sarcastic, demeanor, was sitting with her beloved Chihuahua Chica in their home near Walla Walla Community College, watching Judge Judy. “I love her,” she said. “She just flat tells ya.”
Born in 1959 in Long Beach, Calif., Meyer was adopted at around six weeks old by her grandparents Vivian and Delbert Thompson, longtime farmers who lived in Dayton.
Meyer’s progression through life in the greater Walla Walla Valley took twists and turns — semiprofessional bowling, auction-house work, canine activism, silly shenanigans, poignant family dramas and tensions that as of yet remain unresolved, the intensive-care for a permanently disabled partner, the untimely death of a husband.
But if her life had a thematic refrain, it was the car incidents — uncanny, destructive milestones that atrophied her health and would come to bracket distinct phases of her life.
One spate occurred around the new millennium, when three crashes within mere months of one another forced Meyer to quit her job at Super 1 Foods in Walla Walla. Meyer said doctors told her she would never work again.
“It just took me from ground level to the basement, and I never did crawl back out,” she said. “The damage was permanent at this point.”
In 2010, health issues came to a head when Meyer, widowed a few years prior, found herself on the floor of her home. She called a friend and said, “I’m dying,” and was rushed into surgery.
After some weeks, Meyer returned home to make her recovery. This is when her legal troubles began.
A friend acting as an informal caretaker, recalled Meyer, also happened to be selling drugs.
According to court documents, on April 26, 2011, a client brought $25 to meet the friend in Meyer’s house. The client left the house and got in a car with police detectives, to whom he handed five pills of oxycodone, which he said he had bought off Meyer.
Meyer told the U-B she had been prescribed the oxycodone for her recovery and finally sold the pills after repeated cajoling from the informant.
She said that after around “a month of him harassing me and asking and asking and asking and asking, I’d had enough — ‘just get out of my face, leave me alone,’” she recalled telling him.
Police said, in court documents, that roughly one month after the initial transaction, the informant contacted Meyer to see if she had any more pills to sell, to which, police said, she told him that she would sell him some when she filled her prescription.
The informant, according to court documents, came by and had a cup of coffee with Meyer before she sold him 10 pills for $50. In a second transaction, the informant bought eight pills for $40. In both cases, the money was supplied by a police detective in an undercover vehicle, court records showed.
Meyer maintains that she got “suckered.” Her objective, she said, was to “get (the informant) out of my house.” She attributes the decision to sell the pills to being “scatterbrained” from the medical emergencies. She said she was “too pliable mentally,” and she probably should have been in a care facility at the time.
A few weeks later, Meyer recalls, she looked out her window and saw police.
“And I thought ‘what the hell?’ And they’ve got their vests on, and you know, they thought they were gonna bust a big bad criminal.”
She paused, grew quiet in recollection.
“Just a sick old lady.”
Nearly a year after police searched her home, Meyer said she received a court summons. She was convicted in April 2012 with two counts of delivery of oxycodone, one count for delivery within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop.
The court, under Judge Donald Schacht, imposed LFOs mandated by law — $500 victim assessment fee, $100 for DNA collection — as well as over $900 in fees at his own discretion — toward a drug-enforcement fund, court costs, a Sheriff’s Office fee — to be paid off after her release from custody.
According to sentencing paperwork, the court “considered the defendant’s past, present and future ability to pay legal financial obligations.”
It remains unclear how the court determined her ability to pay. Meyer, at the time, had no regular income, was on government assistance, and, given her medical situation, this was not likely to change.
In Washington state, legal financial obligations affect most people passing through the court system, many of whom, like Lisa Meyer, are poor or disabled and have few viable options for getting out of debt.
But according to lawyers and activists familiar with the issue, LFOs only appeared on the legal community’s radar for reform relatively recently, and such efforts have produced uneven results across a state that, as of 2012, had 483,725 open LFO accounts, according to a report at the time from the Washington Association of County Officials to the state Legislature.
LFOs serve, in theory, a number of purposes. Restitution — which Meyer did not have to pay — goes to victims. Fines, particularly in the case of misdemeanors litigated in district court, theoretically serve as a deterrent for committing crimes. Certain fees, like those for a DNA test, offset administrative costs of processing someone moving through the criminal justice system.
According to the 2014 report by Columbia Legal Services and ACLU of Washington, the average amount of non-restitution LFOs imposed in a felony case was, at the time, $2,540.
Including misdemeanors, the ACLU of Washington says the average LFO on a single case comes out to $1,128.
But it sometimes remains unclear if administrative costs of collection actually outweigh the gains from collection, as Columbia County found last year. For several months between 2016-2017, county officials in Dayton said they didn’t have funding for a staff member to spend the time necessary to enforce payment of legal financial obligations.
In other cases, such as that of Meyer, critics say LFOs are counterproductive because they undermine the reintegration process for the overwhelmingly poor class of convicted criminals who already face a litany of difficulties trying to get back on their feet after serving time.
According to Nick Allen, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services who assisted with the Meyer case and is a leading expert on LFOs statewide, remission laws designed to address poverty considerations have existed since the 1970s.
However, only in recent years — in light of increased awareness resulting from high-profile State Supreme Court decisions, legal and civic activism, efforts of gadflies such as Meyer and, this last June, implementation of a new reform law — have judges regularly considered a person’s specific ability to pay when imposing the debt.
According to Allen, roughly 90 percent of those charged with criminal offenses in Washington state superior courts meet the standards for indigent defense, meaning, among other qualifiers, that the defendant’s income is at or below 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines, they are involuntarily committed to a mental institution or they receive need-based public assistance.
“And then they get a criminal offense, which is only going to likely keep them in poverty, and then in sentencing, the court imposes financial obligations that it is clear that they already do not have the ability to pay,” he said.
According to Allen, the court’s jurisdiction to collect never expires. “You’re never allowed to just get away from the criminal justice system,” he said, adding that as long as debt remains, the courts can bring a debtor in for a hearing to assess whether his or her financial situation has changed.
This process can look very different depending on the county. Despite the ubiquity of LFOs, they are administered and imposed idiosyncratically between different jurisdictions, experts said.
Some judges are more lenient than others with discretionary LFOs. Some courts actively issue warrants for the arrest of someone with unpaid LFOs; others leave them be, experts said.
According to the joint CLS and ACLU of Washington report, in 2014 Benton County “superior and district courts “regularly (failed) to consider ability to pay, and instead aggressively (used) incarceration as a collections tool.”
Critics say such specters and debts can have numerous deleterious effects on the reintegration process. One in particular, said Turner, the STAR Project executive director, cited what she said was the built-in incentive to stay out of the job market: federal law generally prevents courts from garnishing money obtained through means-tested public assistance such as disability and social security — but the moment an indebted ex-con gets an on-the-books job, he or she can lose a significant portion of income to debts like LFOs.
STAR clients with big debt, said Turner, often “don’t engage in the regular workforce,” and instead work off-the-books gigs that don’t show up to the government.
“It is so difficult to convince some of our clients that the best path out of this is to get a straight job.”
In 2015, while Meyer was exploring the prospects for her own LFO relief, the state Supreme Court ruled in Washington State v. Blazina that “courts must take into consideration a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing LFOs,” according to the ACLU of Washington.
For John Hartzell, a local attorney who represented Meyer in her LFO remittance case, the existing remission statute already essentially said, “if a person is poor, and it’s a manifest hardship to have them pay, then don’t impose these fees and fines.”
For him, the landmark Blazina decision “basically said, ‘we really mean it.’”
But for Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Lohrmann, who handled and granted Lisa Meyer’s case for LFO relief, the Blazina case was more than just an emphasis of the law. It was “a game changer.”
Blazina required courts to consider a defendant’s specific life-circumstances when imposing discretionary LFOs.
It “sounded like an affirmation of the what the principles were already,” said Lohrmann. “But I think the courts had a tendency to impose fines and then set over the decision about collecting them to a later date.
“When Blazina came out, courts became more aware and intentional about asking questions early on and saying ‘OK, what is your financial situation? Are you still indigent? What should we impose?’”
Toward the end of a relatively uneventful, if somewhat edifying 13-month incarceration at Washington Corrections Center for Women, Meyer attended classes on reintegration. In one, she learned about navigating legal financial obligations post-release.
With interest, Meyer’s LFO debt had by this time accrued to roughly $1,700. Intrigued by what she had learned in the class, she connected with the STAR Project in Walla Walla.
At the time, stakeholders were beginning to take more interest in LFO reform, experts said.
Fortunately for Meyer, the STAR Project had a legal intern that summer named Ingrid Zerpa who, through the Legal Foundation of Washington, was just beginning an internship that charged her with looking into the issue of LFOs in Walla Walla.
Zerpa and her assigned legal mentor, Dan Clark, a local attorney closely connected to the STAR Project, educated themselves on LFOs, meeting with local attorneys and discussing the Blazina decision, which had been set down just months before.
“I felt kind of like a salesperson,” Zerpa recalled.
As Zerpa realized the scope of the issue, she and Clark began to explore more sustainable ways to help those in the region burdened with heavy LFO debt. They created plain-language forms that anyone, even without a lawyer, could complete to show courts they met the standards establishing their LFOs were a manifest hardship.
STAR Project connected Zerpa and Clark with Lisa Meyer.
Zerpa said she quickly realized that Meyer, as a disabled person who could not work and had no independent income, was the “perfect person” to “illustrate to the community that this was a systemic problem. No one is taking advantage of this. They need help.”
She fondly remembers Meyer sitting in her office with Chica, her regular companion. Meyer had painted the dog’s nails.
With help, Meyer began collecting the paperwork and evidence she would need to make her case to get her LFOs remitted.
Clark could not represent Meyer because of conflicts-of-interest, and Zerpa could not represent Meyer because she was not yet admitted to the bar, but Hartzell, ultimately, was willing to formally represent her in a motion for LFO relief.
The court filing in August 2015 noted the “significant change in the law” engendered by the Blazina decision. The filing presented Meyer’s medical history and welfare information and a financial statement, posing to the court the question of whether, in fact, Meyer had the “current or future ability to pay her LFOs at the time of sentencing” and whether “payment of the mandatory LFOs would work a manifest hardship” on her.
Hearkening back to Meyer’s sentencing, the filing argued that no individualized inquiry, in the manner that courts would be subsequently directed to do by the Blazina decision, was actually made regarding Meyer’s ability to pay LFOs.
Rejecting the prosecuting attorney’s counter-argument that the state should not terminate any of the LFO debts because the “court cannot predict that she will never have better access to funds to pay for her crime,” Judge Lohrmann wiped Meyer’s discretionary LFOs and suspended payments on the $600 in mandatory fees that remained.
Here in Walla Walla County, thanks in large part to Meyer’s case and other local educational efforts, LFOs are now on the radar. Statewide, those advocating for LFO reform have continued to advance their cause.
One 2016 state Supreme Court case, Richland v. Wakefield, again brought the LFO issue back to the fore, saying, in Hartzell’s words, “look we really do mean it. Stop charging these people fees and fines. Especially people who are on a means-tested form of income.”
But that case, said Hartzell, “didn’t have much effect in Walla Walla.” He said the county superior court was already on board.
“Within Walla Walla County, I am not seeing the discretionary LFOs,” said Turner, the STAR Project executive director. “I’ve seen them dwindle and essentially come to an end.”
She said part of it is thanks to Meyer.
When it comes to dealing with LFOs that have already been applied, Turner said, in working with a client who has LFOs in multiple counties, she will have him or her start working on other jurisdictions first “because Walla Walla County is going to go a lot easier.”
In remitting discretionary LFOs from previous judgments, as he did in Meyer’s case, Judge Lohrmann said he is not trying to second-guess his predecessors.
“The prior judges were doing what all the judges in the state were doing, which is to impose the fines that the court felt were appropriate under the circumstances and to delay the collection decision to later on,” he said.
Judge Lohrmann said his court has “found that it’s a whole lot easier to keep it simple. I mean, it’s not that we don’t want people to face the consequences. If they’ve broken the law there are consequences. But it’s a recognition of a real situation.”
Statewide awareness has also increased. Allen said Washington recently received, from the Minority and Justice Commission, a “Price of Justice” grant, which has facilitated efforts to collect data and conduct research to more effectively address the problem.
Last June, a law passed by the state legislature codifying LFO reforms went into effect.
Among other LFO remedies, Bill E2SHB 1783 prevents counties from jailing people simply because they are unable to pay their LFOs, eliminates interest on non-restitution LFOs and lays down clearer standards by which a court must assess a person’s ability to pay imposed debt.
Meyer, a newly minted STAR Project board member, has found generous support systems, but she said she continues to live in precarious states.
She is still working to pay off her remaining debt.