Imposed on some 10 million people throughout the United States, and disproportionately impacting communities of color, Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) are often likened to a modern-day debtors' prison. “These costs, fines, fees and restitution that courts impose at the time of sentencing criminalize poverty,” says Dr. Anna Bosch, UW School of Law affiliate assistant professor and legal director at Living with Conviction (LwC), an organization that seeks economic and racial justice, especially for formerly incarcerated individuals. “LFOs have the effect of tying poor people to the criminal justice system and creating fear of the consequences for non-payment. People who can afford to pay, do so, and are done. People who can’t pay, remain under court supervision, and continue to receive invoices even decades after their convictions. It’s an albatross that doesn’t go away.”

In Washington state, LFOs have historically been added to every criminal sentence, accruing interest at 12% per annum. In response to a survey asking why they thought the court imposes LFOs, a group of Washington state judges gave inconsistent answers as to why they exist. A small group responded that funding the criminal justice system was the reason.

“Washington state is 48th in justice-system funding, and rural communities with less money from property taxes tend to be the most aggressive in the collection of LFOs,” says Deborah Espinosa, a UW School of Law instructor and alumna, visual storyteller and executive director of LwC.

Thanks to the advocacy of many in the justice reform community, LFO updates are ongoing with positive changes to the law in 2018 and 2022. In the current legislative session, HB1169, providing alternative funding sources for victim services that were previously imposed on defendants, is pending. Still, these bills don’t ensure that justice reaches those already impacted. For example, E2SHB 1783 eliminated the 12% interest rate for convictions on or after June 7, 2018 – excluding victim restitution. For people convicted before that date, the law grants a right to removal of the accrued 12% — but only if the person files a motion with the court.

“The law came into existence and then sat, with courts not even fully understanding what the reforms did,” says Bosch. “And as is true of most legal reform, it isn't anyone's job to educate the public about accessing new rights, so we made it our job beginning in 2018 by training formerly incarcerated individuals on their new right and how to claim it.”

There's an App for That

What began as paper-based trainings evolved into LwC’s Justice in Motion Web App. “It's as simple as TurboTax,” says Kyrrah Nork, LwC’s IT Director. “It allows people to file a motion without hiring an attorney or seeking pro bono help. Once they see how easy it is, they tell their friends, and it's a ripple effect. It allows people to exercise their rights under the law without difficulty.” Essential to the app's success is LwC’s approach of its formerly incarcerated team offering hands-on help on how to use the app if someone needs assistance.

Nork understands firsthand how critical this approach is to overcome the stigma and hardships post-conviction and get another chance at life. His journey with the criminal justice system started when he was 13. “I came to Seattle in 1996, strung out on heroin,” he says. “Until 2009, I was constantly going to jail.” He reached a turning point after getting an infraction in prison that led to solitary confinement. There, he asked himself what he could do to never return.

He signed up for an in-prison associate degree program, got perfect grades, and became a computer teaching assistant. After getting out of prison, he started at Seattle Central College, first earning an associate of science (AS) degree in programming and then a bachelor's degree in application development, graduating in June 2019. In August, the college invited him back as a teacher. During that journey, LwC asked him to develop their app to its current level.

Unique Approach Remakes the Future

Since its launch in July 2022, the app has facilitated more than 275 court filings and reduced debt by over $350,000 across its users. In January 2023, the team revised the app to include additional rights to relief that became available January 1. The data the app collects with permission allows follow up to notify people of additional rights they didn’t have when they first filed.

Bosch explains why this approach is different from what many other US-based legal aid organizations or reform groups are doing. “There’s a lot of focus on reimagining and starting over related to the justice system,” she says. “What that doesn’t take care of is all the folks who are already there. These folks need help now.” As a former prosecutor, she understands that many people working within the system also want to see changes. As such, LwC collaborates with formerly incarcerated individuals along with clerks, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges, ensuring that filings meet system requirements that vary by county.

LwC’s approach is part of a worldwide legal empowerment movement seeking justice by making knowledge accessible so that marginalized people can exercise their rights. Espinosa became familiar with the model in her international work where it’s a common way to improve access to justice when there aren’t enough lawyers. In the US, its usage is rare with lots of room to grow, particularly given the extreme gap in access to justice between people with low incomes and those with higher incomes. This model supplements traditional legal aid and is a strategy of educating people about their rights and helping people claim those rights, rather than giving legal advice.

Bosch, whose PhD included a close look at legal empowerment in Indonesia, and Espinosa began collaborating in 2017 when Espinosa first visited Bosch’s Rule of Law class. Taught each Spring Quarter, the class allows students to hear directly from Nork and others with first-hand experience of LFOs and legal empowerment. Since then, LwC has offered opportunities for UW students — including JDs, LLMs, undergraduates and alumni — to gain exposure to legal empowerment as a method for increasing access to justice.

“This work feels incredibly important,” says Bosch. “It’s the cutting edge of law and providing legal aid in this country.”

As the Justice in Motion app gains momentum, everyone at LwC works to meet this growing demand for transformative change. Eliminating his 12% LFO interest means Nork may buy a home one day. Even more important, he’s proud of how far he’s come. “I'm a college professor doing all these fantastic things like helping other people reduce their LFO burden,” he says. “It's an example that anything's possible.”