Different families face different barriers to leaving poverty. Poverty Action recognizes that felony conviction and incarceration have created additional, significant barriers that impact Washingtonians convicted of crimes, their families, and their communities. Because of the institutional racism in our criminal justice system, these families and communities are disproportionately made up of people of color.
Since the rise of the “war on drugs” and the explosion of the prison population, millions of people, primarily people of color, have been funneled in to the criminal justice system at alarmingly rates. In Washington state, the number of residents living behind bars has increased sharply. According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, Washington’s adult imprisonment rate increased by 125 percent between 1980 and 2000 as the state came to rely more on prison time as punishment.1
Many previously incarcerated people face roadblocks to reentering their communities. These roadblocks can exist in restrictions on eligibility for food stamps, public assistance, public housing, student loans, and drivers’ licenses. They also exist as increased barriers to employment and the ability to repay debt or save assets.
One of the largest barriers previously incarcerated people face in reentering their community is debt from legal financial obligations (LFOs). LFOs include court-assigned fines, fees, and restitution orders. For many previously incarcerated people, LFOs, which accrue at a 12% annual interest rate, can result in debt ranging from $500 to $250,000. Failure to pay LFOs can lead to re-incarceration, negative credit ratings, and wage or benefit garnishment. Currently, there are over 114,000 individuals in Washington who are attempting to pay their LFO debt,2and 8,500 adults transitioning from prison back into communities each year. Many of these adults are people with low incomes and people of color.3
What we are doing about it
Removing roadblocks to reentry. Poverty Action is currently mobilizing low-income communities and communities of color around the financial barrier of LFOs, as well as other barriers to reentry that previously incarcerated people in our communities face. In 2013, we began collecting stories and taking action to move our legislature to pass policies that will help people with criminal records reenter their communities.
During the 2016 Legislative Session, we worked on three bills: HB 1390 to reform our state’s LFO system, HB 1553 to create Certificates of Restoration of Opportunity (CROP), helping people to find work after incarceration, and HB 1701/SB 5608 to “Ban the Box” that asks perspective employees about their criminal history on job applications. We are happy to report that an amended version of HB 1553 passed during the 2016 Legislative Session, opening up many job opportunities for previously incarcerated people.
Engaging previously incarcerated voters. In 2009, Poverty Action worked to pass the Voting Rights Restoration Act, which restored the right to vote for 400,000 previously incarcerated people in Washington state as soon as they are no longer under Department of Correction supervision, which includes parole, probation, and work release. Previously in Washington, a person with a felony could not register to vote unless they had paid their legal financial obligations (LFOs) in full beforehand. Since the passage of this law, we launched an aggressive campaign with our grassroots partners to reach out to these newly re-enfranchised people, register them to vote, and ensure they can exercise their right to vote and represent themselves, their families, and their communities.
1. Washington State Institute for Public Policy 2003, Table 1, retrieved at http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/rptfiles/drugcourtMar2003.pdf
2. Data gathered from the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Department of Corrections, retrieved at http://www.washingtonlawhelp.org/documents/472551SULFOBrochure.pdf?stateabbrev=/WA/
3. The Assessment and Consequences of Legal Financial Obligations in Washington State, Report prepared for the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission (2008), retrieved at http://www.courts.wa.gov/committee/pdf/2008LFO_report.pdf