The average debt per case in Washington state superior courts: $2,540.
The average debt per case in Washington state superior courts: $2,540. COSMONAUT/GETTY IMAGES

If you've gone to prison in Washington State, odds are you've come out with debt. Legal financial obligations, or LFOs as they're known, accrue interest while you're imprisoned. Failure to pay them off can land you back in jail. In Washington state superior courts, the average LFO debt is $2,540 per case.

But Washington does allow some former prisoners to rehabilitate—after they've paid their LFOs. The state allows some convictions to be vacated after a period of probation and five to 10 years after the sum total of legal financial obligations has been repaid.

Too often, however, LFOs saddle people long after they've fulfilled the other commitments of their probation. And while formerly incarcerated people are trying to pay off their debt, a conviction prevents them from gaining stable housing or a job. A new bill seeks to change that, by allowing the clock towards scrubbing a conviction to start ticking before LFOs are fully paid.

Tarra Simmons, executive director of Civil Survival and formerly incarcerated herself, went to prison on charges related to her meth and prescription drug addiction. (Getting caught with a drug other than pot is a Class C felony in Washington State.) After she got out, she owed $7,600 in fines, more than a $1,000 than she owed when she went to jail. She couldn't get a job because of her record, her home went into foreclosure, and she declared bankruptcy.

Lawyers helped Simmons with her debt, and she eventually put herself through law school. Now she's studying for the bar. And one of the reasons she's been able to rehabilitate? Because a judge heard her speak at a conference about the burden of LFOs, and decided to pay off her legal debt with one charitable check.

"I went to law school to work on barriers to reentry, because people come out and have no hope of ever getting out of this system," Simmons said.

Now Simmons is advocating for the bill, which would allow the waiting period on vacated convictions to start before debts are fully paid. House Bill 2890 would also expand the number of convictions that can be vacated to include second degree robbery, second degree assault, and third degree assault (not against a police officer). Other interpersonal crimes, including assaults, armed robbery, and sex crime convictions would not be eligible for vacation.

"These are, from our understanding, commonly charged crimes," Rep. Drew Hansen, a sponsor of the bill, said. "And they're serious crimes, there's no question, but they're serious crimes that are charged pretty frequently, and as a practical matter, present barriers to people moving on with their lives."

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There's social science that supports the idea that after a certain period of time—six or seven years after their last offense—people with criminal records who have served their time are just as likely to commit a new crime as the rest of the general population without criminal records. A major 2006 study found that offenders are likely to reoffend soon after arrest, but the likelihood of reoffending in the years following "decreases rapidly and dramatically."

The reentry bill, Simmons says, doesn't guarantee that convictions are overturned, but gives judges more discretion to offer that option. "It doesn't mean that people automatically get their record vacated after a period of time," she said. "There's a process, and prosecutors can object. It's really up to the person to prove they're rehabilitated."

"We're so worried about public safety," Simmons added, "but if we keep putting so many people in prison and we don't give them a way out, people feel hopeless and they reoffend. This gives people hope which in turns keeps our public and our communities safer."