The Budget and Policy Center is part of a statewide coalition that seeks to not only reform Washington state's system of legal financial obligations (LFOs, or fines and fees), but to eventually abolish it. Leading this work on our staff is Senior Policy Analyst Evan Walker.
In this episode of our podcast, Evan speaks with two members of Washington state’s LFO coalition: Chanel Rhymes, the Director of Advocacy for the Northwest Community Bail Fund and Prachi Dave, Managing Director of Policy and Advocacy at Civil Survival.
Their conversation explores ideas of justice, the rippling effects of LFO debt, and the short- and long-term goals of the LFO coalition. This episode also asks all of us to consider how we might start to build a system that provides people with the resources they need and that makes true accountability possible.
Theme music by Revanth Akella
Logo by Eileen Jimenez
Introduction and closing by Communications Director Melinda Young-Flynn
Chanel Rhymes (she/her) is the Director of Advocacy for the Northwest Community Bail Fund (NCBF). The Northwest Community Bail Fund is a nonprofit organization advocating for bail reform and working to minimize the harms of the cash bail system by paying bail for people who would otherwise spend the pretrial time in jail while awaiting routine court appearances. NCBF's work focuses on supporting the most targeted and marginalized communities to assert their legal right to the presumption of innocence and their constitutionally protected right to bail. NCBF opposes pretrial detention and cash bail which harm communities and are racist, classist, and ableist. NCBF currently operates in King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties in Washington State.
Prachi Dave (she/her) is the Managing Director of Policy and Advocacy at Civil Survival. During her legal career, Prachi has been a public defender in Colorado, and has engaged in litigation and policy advocacy with an aim towards transforming the criminal legal landscape. In various roles, she has worked on the problems relating to legal financial obligations in the state of Washington and how the system of legal financial obligations has contributed to mass incarceration through debtors prisons.
Brief: It's time to reform Washington's harmful system of fines and fees by Evan Walker and Andy Nicholas
[00:00:00] Chanel Rhymes: We actually do have a Washington Administrative Code in some of these state agencies that says they will waive the debts that are owed to them after three years. But they don't follow them. They don't even follow their own policy. So the fact that we have this on our books, it's available to do, but people won't utilize it is also a problem.
And I really want to hammer home. It's just a waste of money. Our court system should not be funded on the backs of poor people.
[00:00:38] Melinda Young-Flynn: Welcome to WA Possible, a podcast about what is possible for economic justice in Washington state. This podcast is presented by the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, a research and policy organization working to advance progressive state budget and tax policies that promote racial equity and economic dignity at the Budget & Policy Center. We dream of a brighter future where everyone has a home to rest in, families can afford child and elder care, and people have enough money to buy the food and resources they need.
On WA Possible, we talk with partners, advocates and our staff who are helping make this vision a reality. We know that economic justice is possible here in Washington State because we are building toward it together.
I'm Melinda Young Flynn, director of communications at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, and I'm pleased to introduce today's episode. It's well known that the criminal legal system in Washington, like in the U.S., is overwhelmingly harmful toward communities of color, especially Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. If you're not directly impacted by or working in the criminal legal system, you may not be aware that Washington state's court funding is tied to a system of financial punishment of individuals called legal financial obligations or LFOs.
LFOs are fines and fees imposed upon people throughout their interaction with the criminal legal system. They include charges for DNA collection, access to public defender services, jail bookings, and many other costs. Each year, about 70% of Washington's residents who receive court mandated fines or fees cannot afford to pay them. In fact, a person's debt from foes can easily add up to thousands of dollars and create devastating financial pressures for them and their families.
Lack of payment toward this debt can also result in garnishment when money from wages, tax credits and other income is withheld by the state. For people caught in the legal system, these costs can create or deepen other traumas, including health issues or homelessness. Too often, the impact of LFO debt ultimately harms the children and loved ones of those convicted. These monetary sanctions can easily become an additional sentence that looms over a person's life and their family's life, well beyond their time incarcerated.
The Budget & Policy Center is part of a statewide coalition that seeks to not only reform the system of fines and fees, but to eventually abolish it. Leading this work on our staff as senior policy analyst Evan Walker. In this episode of our podcast, Evans speaks with two members of Washington state's LFO Coalition, Chanel Rhymes, the director of advocacy for the Northwest Community Bail Fund, and Prachi Dave, Managing Director of Policy and Advocacy at Civil Survival. That was Chanel speaking at the top of this episode.
Their conversation explores ideas of justice, the rippling effects of LFO debt, and the short- and long-term goals of the LFO Coalition. This episode also asks all of us to consider how we might start to build a system that provides people with the resources they need and that makes true accountability possible.
Let's get to the interview.
[00:03:54] Evan Walker: I'm just getting ready to have this conversation about LFOs and what we see is possible in Washington state with not only LFO reform, but working toward LFO abolition and dismantling of the system. So, Chanel, I wanted to ask you, do you think that people on both sides of the convicted offense are brought closer to justice with assessing fines and fees and restitution?
[00:04:26] Chanel: I would first say, you know, what is justice? Everybody has a different definition or sense of what they think justice is. Right now, it's very hard to even answer that because so many people have a different idea of what justice is. Personally, I believe that, to answer your question, no, it doesn't.
On one hand, it continues to keep people in poverty. You know, having a criminal conviction is already a barrier to many, many things, whether that be housing or employment. So just adding on this other additional barrier that is financial, especially with the world that we live in right now with the rising costs of housing, food, basic needs are just a lot more expensive. You know, the cost of living here in the Seattle area has gone up 10.1% since June of last year. So, no, in a sense, it doesn't.
And then on the other side, what I don't think people realize is that even in cases where there is restitution, it's not that that money is immediately going to the, quote unquote victim or the person harmed. There is a lot of hands that reach into that pot before the actual person who's ordered on that court order or restitution is given any money. And a lot of times if you have people that are indigent, low income, they're going to be paying, very probably, a low dollar amount per month, maybe anywhere from $15 to $25.
And all of that little bit of money has to get divided up into different places. And so the last person on that list is typically the person that the restitution is going to. So, no. It's not like folks are immediately getting any kind of relief or made whole again. So, in a sense, I would say, no. I don't think it does.
[00:06:26] Evan: Yeah, I think we can dig into what we might see justice as. And I think you were sort of getting there at the end, of justice being something where a person is made whole after being harmed. Needing to fill in gaps where there has been damage to something. But is that just about the two people that were involved? Or who do you see as like…I'm just curious of your thoughts there.
[00:06:53] Chanel: I think I know where you’re going…yeah, families. Families, the children of the formerly incarcerated, the community that the formerly incarcerated came from. Everybody pays. And to be quite honest, that person may have done their time, but then once they're out, their family and their children do the time, too. Because all of the other barriers that they are facing once released are being pushed on to those other people.
And our state, or at least our governor has recognized – December of 2021, Inslee issued an executive order, executive order 2105, which is basically the state saying we need to work to reduce generational poverty. They've recognized that it's an issue and they're calling on the Office of Equity to facilitate policy and system change within our agencies to essentially stop creating these poverty wheels that people are just constantly, constantly on.
And I think, too, folks that are creating policy, folks that are enforcing policy, need to also remember that whatever you're doing is not just right here happening to that individual person. There are going to be people who are affected by that. And if we really care about our futures, we should be worried about the children, about people's children and what they are going through. Because essentially we're just setting them up to go back into that cycle and then repeat all of this.
People that are formerly incarcerated or lower income families have a higher rate of coming in contact with the criminal punishment system. So right then and there, it's like we are just constantly on this wheel. If we're criminalizing, say, homelessness or charging people with crimes based essentially on the fact that they're homeless, and then we also know that one of the main reasons why people can't find housing is because of a criminal conviction, what is this wheel that we're on? What are we doing? How is that a good use of our funds, of our tax dollars? Essentially, too, because we're paying, taxpayers are paying for this.
[00:09:17] Evan: Yeah. And I just want to reiterate what you said at the top as well, that assessing fines and fees adds to that, it adds to somebody's inability to being able to access housing. It also can prolong somebody's ability to clear their record, right? And be able to access future resources, right?
[00:09:40] Chanel: Future Resources. It can bar them from employment. We have a lot of employers now check people's credit scores. I mean, your credit score getting checked for you to get a job to get housing to get… We are essentially like, you know, yeah we outlawed debtors prisons but you know in real life we haven't. And we would have better return on investment to invest that within programs, resources that actually help folks, or even in just education itself.
We're very low on the scale for funding education. I mean, our state, we were sued because we weren't properly funding education. So, we could be doing better things with our dollars. And we also have the data to show that those things work. So that's another thing, is that we're just completely ignoring what we know to work and research and data that we have. And a lot of these policies and things are made on conjecture and feelings and not real actual facts.
[00:10:40] Evan: Yeah, no, absolutely. And Prachi, I want to also open that question up to you. Does your head go in the same way around what justice means? And also, who's involved and what that looks like? I'm curious to know what you think.
[00:10:53] Prachi: You know, I absolutely agree with what Chanel said about notions of justice being different depending on who you are, your life experiences and policy lens that you're utilizing, so on and so forth. And I will say that – and I think Chanel could definitely speak better to this – if historically what we had done at the very least was geared towards the notion of justice being the notion of justice that is carried by people who are impacted by the system, we would have been in a much better position right now.
We didn't. So, we find ourselves in the situation where, how many human beings have been trampled under the weight of the system because we simply didn't do that? I think that people are, at the very least at this moment in time, recognizing that it's incredibly important.
And ideally, we will evolve to a point where this will be kind of the primary lens with which we are viewing policy changes. Which is to view those policy changes and enact those policy changes through the lens of people who are impacted. So, ideally, we'll reach this point in time in the future where some of those notions of justice will come together, because it is aligned with the ideas of people who are actually impacted by the system.
[00:12:21] Prachi: One of the things that I do think is interesting and I think we've all seen is – and Chanel, you pointed this out, as well – that when you're talking about LFOs, the concept that it just doesn't make economic sense is an area where there has been some kind of coalescence. You know, for me, I don't think it's a good system regardless.
If we can develop a coalescence around the fact that this is simply not the way that our system should be funded. This is particularly true in the state of Washington. Washington has a system, a court system particularly, that is not unified. And that means that it is funded at one of the lowest levels in the entire country by the state. But a lot of the services that people are saying that they want perhaps should be funded. It just shouldn’t be funded off the backs of individual users.
And I think those notions of justice are at least something that perhaps we can create some common understanding around. I think that maybe that's the direction that we're seeing. And I'm hoping that that is the direction that's going to push us into that ultimate policy position we want to see ourselves in, which is the ultimate eradication of these LFOs that are being imposed on individual users, quote unquote in the system.
[00:13:44] Evan: Thank you for that. And I actually think the undercurrent of what you were talking about leads me to the next question here, and that's how have you seen clients and people you advocate with and for be affected by reentry after they're serving time with outstanding debt and LFOs How are they affected by reentry with having this debt?
[00:14:11] Prachi: One of the things that I always want to point out – because I do think that some people know about this, but then there are still large swaths of people who simply don't know – that there is a very, very common mechanism, even post-incarceration, for systems to collect on debt. And that is to use the coercive effect of a warrant and jail time.
In the state of Washington, we had very, very commonly employed the system of debtors prisons where you would say that a person has, as a part of their sentence, LFOs that they haven't paid, automatically - without any consideration of whether or not the person didn't have the resources, was unable to pay those LFOs – a warrant would be issued. That person would be brought into court and, without consideration of their financial circumstances at all, the person would be sentenced to jail. That would be done on a day-by-day basis. You owe X amount of LFOs. You can discharge that debt at $50 per day in your local jail. That is an incredible impediment on individuals.
I cannot imagine – but a lot of people don't have to imagine because they've lived through this – the concept of being ripped away from your life and then being told to spend several days in jail in order to discharge this debt, which everyone knew you couldn't pay in the first place.
So, I would say that spending any amount of time in jail because of your LFO debt is something that is an incredible impediment to reentry. You're going to lose your job. You're going to lose your housing. Your family relies on you. And that reliance is impacted by your ability to do that. There are, of course – and Chanel referenced some of these earlier – there are some legal ramifications of having LFOs on your record. In the state of Washington, if you have outstanding LFOs, you can't vacate your conviction. And one of the major benefits of being able to vacate your conviction in Washington is to be able to go out into the world and say, no, I was not convicted of this crime. I wasn't convicted.
[00:16:35] Prachi: And that's really important, because as Chanel said, a lot of employers do background checks. A lot of housing providers do background checks. And they want to be able to exclude people on the basis of prior criminal history. I can't think of where many people would be if they don't have those fundamental resources available for them.
How do you develop that intergenerational wealth? How do you develop that stability for yourself and your family? And I think that that's really important for us to consider on a daily basis – what I would imagine is terrifying notion, constantly – that these are things that are not going to be as available to you as for other people.
You know, as a person who has practiced, and has represented clients, I will say from a first-person, that kind of contact, with my clients and representing people, we know this is not a surprise. This is a very unfortunate reality. Which is that all of these systems racially disproportionately impact individuals. In the system, whether or not you're captured in the system. But also, there's been research that's been done that says that people who are BIPOC are more likely to carry these debts for a longer time. That has an impact on people in reentry because it is incredibly hard to think about debt and how do you overcome that?
[00:18:05] Prachi: Just think about the conversations that everyone has been having about student debt relief and how important it is to be able to let go of that debt. For people to be able to make choices, free choices, moving forward without the consideration of their debt. The other piece in the state of Washington is that, for people with disabilities, for example, there are many people who, in addition to other issues, are living on very, very limited incomes.
And while the state of Washington, our courts have said courts cannot – and I obviously agree – that they should not be able to extract money from those limited incomes in order to pay LFO debt. It still means that people with very limited incomes do have that outstanding LFO debt. Some of that debt can't be waived on the backend. Some of that debt is mandatory debt.
And if you go to a court and you say I do not have any resources to pay. I am on a certain kind of public benefit. I cannot pay this. The court says my hands are tied. So what does that person do when they are in a situation where they have this debt hanging over them? Incredibly limited resources? That means that other kinds of things, like Chanel mentioned, like the vacate option is even less available to a certain group of people who we've already, as a society, marginalized in so many different ways.
So those are some instances in the way that LFOs impact people's reentry outcomes and opportunities. There are so many, many others, and people who are impacted are the people who can speak most heavily to what those look like.
[00:19:49] Evan: Thank you for all of that. And I'm curious really quick too, Prachi, in your experience, from what you've seen, who benefits from the debt that is created? Who benefits from the system or from assessing that debt?
[00:20:06] Prachi: I would say one of the primary beneficiaries of the debt that's been created is the third-party collection agency system. In the state of Washington, we have created a network of statutes that allows for counties, for example, courts to contract with collection agencies for the collection of LFO debt. And when they are contracted with, when that gets transferred over for the purposes of collection to a collection agency, nobody engages in an ability-to-pay analysis.
That is, nobody asks, Hey, was this person able to pay the debt in the first place? Can this person pay this debt now? Will this person be able to pay the debt in the future? That's bad enough because it happens without the person even knowing and it happens without any conceptualization of whether or not a person can pay this debt.
But oftentimes, and I will say that I have not seen a contract in which this doesn't happen, collection agencies will add additional fees. In the state of Washington, you can add 100% fee on a $100 balance, but under that you can add a 50% fee. So, without a person knowing that you can have 50% of your principal balance be added on when it gets transferred to a collection agency.
That is a tremendous amount of money. That is a shocking amount of money. And of course, the collection agency collects some of that money. It’s a private entity. It's a private for-profit entity. That is the way in which its business structure functions and operates. So, I would say that the utilization of collection agencies in the state of Washington, having them collect some of those monies from people who simply are not able to pay, those entities are some of the primary beneficiaries of the way in which our current LFO collections in the state of Washington.
[00:22:12] Evan: Yeah. Thank you. And I'm curious, Chanel, for what you have to add to this. I think just a continued part of really what's underlying both these questions, too, is that- That's the fundamental thing here, is that people just straight up don't have the money and they're expected to go through experiences in jail and incarceration and debt and everything that accompanies those experiences. And so I'm curious, Chanel, if you want to expand on that and also add your thoughts to what we were just sharing.
[00:22:51] Chanel: You know, like you said, folks don't have the money. But I also think- It's not real money. It's really like numbers on a screen. And I will say, last April, the Fines and Fees Justice Center released a report, and it says how much criminal justice debt does the U.S. really have?
And they estimate it's somewhere at least $27.6 billion. They did two years’ worth of surveys and out of – they tried to get information from all states. I think only 14 states were able to give full data on their debt and Washington was one of them. However, Washington has the highest LFO debt per capita out of all 50 states.
It’s $426. So that would mean every Washington resident would have $426 in debt. And that's just ridiculous. They've provided recommendations on what states should do and one of those things is, after three years, you shouldn't even be trying to collect the debt. It's a waste of tax dollars and tax resources. I will also add, though, that, with Washington, people like to say we're very progressive and ahead and certain things.
And, we actually do have a Washington Administrative Code in some of these state agencies that says they will waive the debts that are owed to them after three years. But they don't follow them. They don't even follow their own policy. So the fact that we have this on our books, it's available to do, but people won't utilize it is also a problem.
[00:24:32] Chanel: And I really want to hammer home. It's just a waste of money. Our court system should not be funded on the backs of poor people. They are accessed by all citizens. All citizens should be paying for these courts. Meaning we need to get rid of court costs altogether, all the way.
We are a very rich state. We have money here. We could fund our courts probably off the backs of two rich people here alone. I think we just got to really, really keep hammering home that it's just not financially sound. It's just not. Even just the administrative part of it, of record keeping, of trying to make sure that this is paid, and this person goes to collections, and all that. It doesn't make sense.
And we are paying for it essentially because the people that we keep assessing these fines to can't really afford to pay for it.
[00:25:37] Evan: Right. Yeah. And I think with that, too, I think about just this cycle that you both have brought up, as well, of just- let's say if you are incarcerated and you leave with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, how are you supposed to pay that back? Like, in what ways – and I think you both said this also in a different way is – how are you supposed to set your life up or what type of services are providing people to come back to? To not only – I think, Chanel, you said this at the start – to make your rent, to ensure that you've got money for bills and everything. And as the cost of everything is increasing, how are you supposed to meet all of those demands and also begin to put a chip into that debt that is also increasing with interest?
I think that you both have just alluded to so many different aspects of this apparatus, or just these different parts of it where it's really set up in a multitude of ways to ensure that there's more money put on top of the amount that people owe, to make them pay.
And I think another point that you've also brought up earlier is what other system that we have, especially like a governance system, is like this and is able to run like this? Go ahead.
[00:27:15] Chanel: I was just going to say, I don't even think people realize the real-life, long-term effects of- Okay, somebody – and I'm not talking about, you know, $1,000 of court fines or restitution. We have people, myself, my restitution is in the six figures. I was fortunate enough to have it pulled out of collections and take away the collection fees, but that interest has brought it right back up to where it was.
Or even folks that have- Let's say you got $18,000 you owe to a state agency. And then they now garnish you and they're garnishing you at $200 a month. There's no way somebody is going to pay off $18,000 at $200 a month. How are they going to do that? And so, then that's like, you've got somebody with a garnishment just on their record for forever? And they will never be able to get a house, they'll never be- just forever.
So also, at that, we are stunting people from being able to even try to bring themselves up out of poverty. Us, as a state, are inhibiting our own citizens from moving up the economic- Essentially, that's what we're doing. If those are your policies, that's your practice, that's what you're ultimately saying is you have to stay here. We don't care. But then in the same token, demonize those folks and asking them why can't you pull yourself out? We're gaslighting people, in a sense.
[00:28:55] Evan: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And obviously the effects are- I mean, I would just say for the sake of this conversation – it goes to both people of citizenship status and non-citizenship status too, right? Everybody that is living in the state, it does impact everybody potentially, right? And if you are interacting with the punishment system or, like we said, you're a family member, it is so far-reaching. And I just wanted to underscore that point.
[00:29:39] Chanel: I should have said residents, not citizens. It's all people that are here residing within this state. Whether you are documented or undocumented, we are all affected by it.
[00:29:51] Evan: Yeah, exactly. Well, to kind bring us out of underscoring this problem in so many different ways, which I think we've done a solid job at, I want to move us in this direction of – and Chanel you've alluded to the front end of this – getting to folks before somebody is even in a position to- or improving people's conditions so they might not be in a position where something happens and harm is caused.
So, I just want to ask why would funding support services for people be cheaper – and more than just cheaper, I feel like that the word doesn't do enough justice, but why would it have better outcomes for public safety and people and their lives than incarceration and the results of not being able to pay, and debt? I'm wondering if you could elaborate there.
[00:30:56] Chanel: Well, I would say one, we just already know, for example, with education. You put a certain amount of dollars within education, you're going to get an even a larger return on that dollar that you invested. We can also think about it in the same context of services that people need, such as substance disorder treatment. Whether it be rental assistance, food, mental health treatment. If those folks had those things, do you think they would have any type of interaction with the criminal punishment system?
No, because their needs are met. When we meet people's needs, there's no need for that. And public safety goes up because everyone is safe. I think, right now there's a big talk about crime is on the rise and all of these things are going on. But really what it is, is poverty is more visible and people are associating that with crime.
You know, people are hurting. Everyone is. We were just in a pandemic. We still are. I do not care what anybody else says, we are still in it.
[00:32:08] Evan: Yeah, we are.
[00:32:11] Chanel: Because people out here, you know us regular folks are still feeling what has happened over that. We had a two-year period where everything was upended. Our courts have stalled. You think about that people cases are just lingering. They were already lingering long before that, and now we have that.
And so, we just need to recognize that people are hurting. Punishment is not working. We have been doing the same thing for many, many, many decades. And we are still getting the same outcomes. So let's not try something new that has been tried on smaller scales and they seem to be having great outcomes.
I will say, another good resource: beyondcourts.org. They have a lot of good information on how to address some of these things and one of the things they have is a toolkit on questions to consider when you're trying to remove the courts from adjudicating harm. There are ton of data and research and real lived experiences that we could look to to do this the right way.
It really doesn't make sense to me that we even have to explain this. That if you were to help somebody get mental health care, that you cannot have the wherewithal, the thought to think that, okay, then they probably wouldn't have come in contact with the police. How is that so hard for people to make those connections?
It really baffles me. And so then I kind of go back to we have a big lack of empathy right now in this society. And very individualistic, you need to handle your stuff by yourself. Or, I've got mine, you better figure out how you get yours. And we really just can't be that way because, we say that we're not, but our actions are saying otherwise.
[00:34:25] Evan: There's one thing that you said that I just want to highlight again – and I don't know if it's from beyondcourts.org – but you said remove the courts from adjudicating harm. And to me in my head too I see that as remove the courts from adjudicating the violence and trauma of poverty and the violence and trauma of just living, right? I don't know, I just really like that, so I just want to also lift that up.
Prachi, what do you think are the short-term needs that help build toward the long-term goal of fines and fees abolition? And what are changes to or current laws and tools that exist? What are the things that you see that need to happen right now to help us get sustained over the long run to what's possible here?
[00:35:16] Prachi: I think that's a great question, especially in the context of some of the things that you mentioned Chanel and also some of the things that we are experiencing in the state of Washington right now. I think that when we think about short-term and long-term goals, certainly some of them may seem more expansive than others. But I think we can also look to other states that have accomplished a lot of this already.
For example, for a little bit of background, in the state of Washington, the Supreme Court last year found that simple drug possession, at least that statute, is unconstitutional. And what that resulted in was the necessity for relief, certainly for people moving forward, but the conceptualization of relief retroactively. This is something that our structures and our systems are not necessarily accustomed to grappling with.
They don't understand retroactive relief in the same way as they understand proactive relief, or to understand the motion that comes to them. But they don't necessarily understand changing the entire system of the way that they do things to basically say, listen, figuratively, I'm going up to a person's doorstep and I'm saying, here's your check. Or I'm going up to a person's doorstep and saying, hey, this debt, which, by the way, we knew you could never pay, is a debt that you should no longer be required to pay. That burden has been lifted from you.
That, given everything that we've been experiencing in the state of Washington, certainly over the last year and a half, I don’t think that that's not a viable short-term goal. Understanding what the retroactive impact has been on people and really grappling with that. And thinking about, well, listen, if WSIPP (Washington State Institute for Public Policy) did a study that says that the rate of collection on LFOs is so abysmally low that we actually can’t fund our court system, then this is a policy goal that we really should be working towards.
[00:37:28] Prachi: And I think that not only is it necessary, but I think that maybe my question I was getting towards or also talking about is there is a community-based responsibility here. Do we engage in the kind of widespread harm reduction practices, right? Individuals on their own have a lot on their plates and they can’t constantly be coming to court to say, hey, I can't afford to pay this.
Individuals are resilient. They're amazing. They find ways around it. It doesn’t mean that's not causing them harm on a daily basis. So why can't we take some of these lessons that we've learned, apply them in the short-term, and give people relief where we know it's possible? And certainly – not that I'm saying this is a factor – but certainly we know it's not going to be damaging to the funding structure overall.
I think if we do that, it will stand us in good stead for the longer-term goals here. The longer-term goals here are to reduce harm for individuals and, in order to push on. The state wants certain policy goals to be funded. The state should fund those, they shouldn’t be funded – I think this is a theme throughout this conversation – on the backs of individuals.
So, let's utilize those structures that utilize those ways of thinking. A lot of education. We're already there. Many people are recognizing this, right? Like, this is just not working. These are broken systems. So, let's utilize all of that work that we've done in order to build towards that long-term solution. And in doing so, you achieve the goal that a lot of system's players appear to want to achieve, which is a more widespread faith in these systems.
[00:39:24] Prachi: Right now, that trust I don't think exists. The trust between communities and their courts. The trust between communities and law enforcement mechanisms. Those don't exist. But in a context where, some of those institutions can come together and say, hey, we're here to remedy some of these harms. Perhaps that will go an inch towards actually doing that, actually repairing some of these relationships.
So, I do think that there are practical things that we can start doing right now in order to set ourselves up for long term success. And I think that we have to understand that there are some intangibles here, right? There are some intangibles here that perhaps we won't be able to necessarily measure by a study from WSIPP or something like that, even if we’d like to. Not that there aren't ways for us to try to do that. But they are going to be incredibly important. It’s important for individuals in the state of Washington to feel comfortable around institutions that are fundamentally meant to protect them.
They're meant to serve them. And I think that that's really important for us to arrive back at a core understanding of what these institutions are actually there for. I think there are concrete steps we can take. They have reverberating benefits that accrue to us all, which I think is really what we're talking about, because the system right now, it doesn't have benefits that accrue either to the system or to individuals.
That’s the way in which I’m thinking about the short term and the long term. Of course, as we all know, LFOs are embedded in a series of statutory networks. I think that we are all engaged in the work of undoing some of that. And I think that is work that we will continue to do, and I think is necessary both here and, frankly, across the country.
[00:41:40] Evan: Something that you talked about, and I kind of want to combine two questions, so forgive me. But, you brought up retroactive relief. And you brought up what that looks like in the short term. Are you excited about what that might look like in the long term? And also, what are you most excited about with what we can do with LFO, both dismantling, changes, everything.
And also, what would proper retroactive relief look like? I think you gave us a really great example, but I think you're talking about so much more there that both of you have alluded to already. But yeah, I was just wondering if you can give me what you're excited about. What does that look like long term or what's the possibility there with proper retroactive relief?
[00:42:30] Prachi: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. There's the minimum standard for retroactive relief. Which is you gave us X amount of money. Here is X amount of money back. But as we expand outwards from that kind of poor understanding of what the retroactive relief means, we go towards some of the things that we've been talking about throughout this conversation, which are like, how do you go back and really conceptualize and think about the ways in which these systems have harmed people?
There are ways in which to quantify those, for sure. But, there are also ways in which, the state can certainly go back and say, hey, we understand that we cannot- we don't have, currently, the benefit of time travel, right? But what we can certainly do is set up, for example, a fund.
We set up a fund in order to say, you are a person who had this conviction. As a result of that conviction, you were unable to get access to- name it: We've talked about housing, employment, education, whatever it is. How can you draw from this fund in order to drive your progress forward? I don't think we should limit our notions of justice – maybe going back to the very beginning of the conversation – to purely what you can derive from an account balance.
There are these different harms. The legal system quantifies these harms every single day. What are damages if not a quantification of the different kinds of crimes that people have faced via the legal system. And so absolutely, I think that there are different ways to think about those. I'm excited about the way in which, different systems are really thinking about that right now, potentially really working together in order to say hey, yes, absolutely.
The one example which is Blake, considering the war on drugs and considering the incredible harms that have resulted from that. People are engaging in not only an acknowledgment but a reckoning. And what I am excited about is the way in which those lessons will spread into some of these other areas that we are talking about, and certainly talking about throughout this conversation.
[00:44:52] Evan: Yeah. Thank you. And Chanel, what makes you most excited about what you're doing and where our fight is going? And is there anything you want to add in terms of what you hope to see and where our work well will take us in the future?
[00:45:08] Chanel: Yeah. I'm excited that, it’s seeming to me- I've been in criminal punishment reform work for a long time. The conversation is changing and that's exciting. And people are starting to look at the whole like, wait a minute, how do we stop this from here? Instead of trying to correct mistakes. I am excited that people are trying to look ahead and seeing, how do we stop this from the beginning?
Also, I think with what Prachi said, I'm excited that people are acknowledging it. You know, summer of 2020, the Supreme Court issued a letter to court officers saying the court needs to recognize its role in systemic racism. That's a move forward. Now, what would be great is if people remember that they issued that letter and continue that years on down the line, and now.
But, we're moving. We've had legislation that has come up that has made some changes. It's not all of what we wanted, but it is progress. So, I'm excited about that. I'm excited that, they're creating a task force to bring everyone to the table and talk about this thing.
And I'm just excited that you are even doing something, that the Washington [State] Budget & Policy Center is even interested in this. And the fact that you've got a Budget & Policy center coming in to try to work with criminal punishment reform, it's being talked about in a different setting. That's awesome. But that's what excites me.
And I think too, just the conversations that folks are having about it just not being financially sustainable. Finally, we are getting that through to people. I mean, it's very, very small, but it is slowly seeping in that it's- we can't keep doing this. We don't have the money. So, I think those are the things that I'm really most excited about.
[00:47:06] Evan: Amazing. Well, thank you. Is there any other soundbite or plug that you would love for us to add in? I just wanted to make sure that I capture anything else, if you'd like to say.
[00:47:18] Chanel: I would just say if you are needing more education, information, toolkits on changing the criminal punishment system, and also how to speak to other folks who do not agree with some of what you're saying in changing the criminal punishment system, I would really check out Beyond Courts’ website. They have a wellspring of resources. And they really break it down in a very clear manner. It's easily attainable, lots of infographics and stories. And it's not like dry, wonky policy things. It's actually something people will be interested in, they'll really want to delve into.
[00:48:00] Evan: Amazing, thank you. Prachi, anything?
[00:48:04] Prachi: I think the only thing that I will say is that if you're getting the sense from this conversation that the imposition of this criminal system debt is widespread, it is even more widespread than you think. And people on the daily are carrying even more debt than you would think that they are in connection to their case.
We are trying to talk about the magnitude of the problem. We are being hopeful about the future. But the problem is still of a magnitude that deserves immediate attention. And so, thank you so much, Evan, for engaging in a practice of bringing attention to it.
[00:48:49] Melinda: We're grateful to Evan, Chanel, and Prachi for having this conversation. You can learn more about Chanel and Prachi’s important work by checking out links to their organizations in our show notes. There, you can also find a link to the 2022 brief that Evan co-wrote with Budget & Policy Center senior fellow Andy Nicholas: It's time to reform Washington's harmful system of fines and fees. Additional resources and a transcript of this episode are also in the show notes and on our website at budgetandpolicy.org/podcast.
Thank you for listening to WA Possible. This podcast is sponsored by the Economic Security Project, the Washington State Council of Firefighters, AARP of Washington, and Seattle Children's Hospital. Our theme music was created by Spokane beatmaker Revanth Akella and the WA Possible logo was designed by Seattle-based artist Eileen Jimenez.
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