What happens when people are assigned legal debts that are out of their reach to repay? The results can be an unfair lifelong burden that keeps them from successfully re-entering society with realistic opportunities to succeed, impeding access to education, employment, driver’s licenses and voting, and leading to cycles of incarceration for failure to pay. Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) are the set of fines, fees, costs and restitution imposed by courts on top of a criminal sentence, and they are assessed throughout the U.S. Research shows these debts are disproportionately impacting those living in poverty and communities of color, as well as being unevenly assessed by geography. For example, the median legal debt associated with conviction in King County, Washington, is $600. In Asotin County, Washington, where the median income is 40 percent lower than King County, that same conviction is typically $2,300. However, stakeholders across Washington state are gathering data on the consequences of LFOs and examining the policies and systems in place to identify approaches that support, rather than undermine, rehabilitation; Microsoft is pleased to be supporting this effort.
Improving the criminal justice system is a key priority for Microsoft’s public policy efforts in Washington state. As Microsoft President Brad Smith previously noted, “We believe that, as a community, we must come together to address the fact that diverse segments of our population can have widely divergent experiences in their interactions with law enforcement.”
From 2009 to 2013, LFOs were imposed on more than 275,000 Washington residents. One example is Sabrina, who after an abusive situation and the use of methamphetamine in her teens, served time in prison and owed approximately $5,000 in LFOs. With interest and penalties, the debt increased to $39,000. Lately, she has been able to make $200 monthly payments toward her LFOs while also working to graduate from college, but worries that she will never be able to help her children get higher education. (Read more about others experiencing the consequences of LFO debt through the Living with Conviction organization.)
In 2016, Washington was one of five states selected to receive a “Price of Justice” grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to study the impact of LFOs in courts across the state, understand rules and behaviors around LFO impositions and collection, and gather stakeholders to collaborate and share information. The LFO Stakeholder Consortium is composed of groups from across relevant communities, including judges, court officials, public defenders, researchers and social service organizations.
The consortium sought to build a clear and accurate tool for judges to use so they could quickly understand the impact of the LFOs they were imposing, along with the legal basis they needed to adjust the fees and fines. The goal is to help a judge impose a financial penalty that fits the crime and is realistic for the defendant to pay within the expected probation period. With over 300 fees and fines, applicable to 1,500 different crimes, delivering enough information without stalling the court process was no easy task.
The Microsoft Cities Team worked closely with Municipal Court Judge Linda Coburn over the past several months to support the consortium’s design of the envisioned tool. The Cities Team is anchored in 10 cities around the United States, focused on enabling partnerships that strengthen metropolitan communities and foster civic innovation for public good. Nationally, the work focuses on education and training, economic development, sustainability, criminal justice, accessibility, transportation and other local priorities. The bulk of our work across these issues looks to apply technology and data to advance the effectiveness and awareness of local initiatives and priorities. Through partnerships with non-profits, governments, start-ups and other organizations, the team strives to be an active collaborator on work that has a sustained and scalable impact on the lives of individuals.
On this project, the solution needed to capture all legal documentation and the judicial process, creating a resource that contains a library’s worth of knowledge while presenting only what matters in an individual case. The result is the LFO Calculator for Washington State Courts of Limited Jurisdiction and the Superior Court. Data hosting and services are powered by the Azure cloud, with reporting, analysis and visualizations being provided through a Power BI dashboard.
On June 7, a new law on LFOs will go into effect in Washington state. Reflecting the leadership and work of groups across the state, this bill makes several critical reforms to the system, including limits on penalties for non-willful failure to pay or for mentally ill defendants, clearer standards for determining a person’s ability to pay, and restriction of the circumstances where 12 percent interest can be applied. The LFO Calculator has been designed to reflect the new law, and on June 7, more than 200 District Court judges can begin using the calculator in their courtrooms. The LFO Stakeholder Consortium hopes that this tool will provide judges with the information they need to impose LFOs responsibly and fairly across the state of Washington.
Looking ahead, the Washington Administrative Office of the Courts and the LFO Stakeholder Consortium will be capturing and analyzing the usage data to understand how this resource improves judges’ ability to impose fees and fines that are fair and reasonable for the circumstances of each case. In addition, the calculator is being made available publicly via the web, allowing judges, defenders, advocates and the public to use it in order to better understand the LFO process and prepare for sentencing. Finally, the underlying technology infrastructure that supports the calculator will be made openly available for other states and organizations to build on the investment and lessons learned.
Better understanding of the assessment and consequences of legal debt on individuals is needed to inform local, state and national policy and programs in this space – and access to more complete data and more timely information is an important part. Reducing the number of people like Sabrina who are experiencing the unfair consequences of LFO debt can be a goal across the country.