Washington Law Review

Comment

Never Mistake Law for Justice: Releasing Indigent Defendants from Legal Purgatory

December 01, 2020 | 95 Wash. L. Rev. 1953

Abstract

Washington courts impose two mandatory legal financial obligations (LFOs) on almost anyone who pleads guilty to or is convicted of a crime: a $100 DNA sample fee and a crime victim penalty assessment of $250 for misdemeanors and $500 for felonies. These fines run afoul of the Social Security Act, which bars attachment of Social Security benefits to pay debts, including LFOs. As a result, defendants whose sole source of income is Social Security benefits are not obligated to pay their mandatory LFOs. But such defendants cannot obtain certificates of discharge to clear their conviction records and thus complete their reintegration into society. The Supreme Court of Washington recently denied review of State v. Conway, in which a disabled Social Security recipient petitioned for remission of her mandatory LFOs. The decision to not hear Conway’s case leaves impoverished Social Security recipients in a legal purgatory where they do not have to pay their LFOs but are simultaneously unable to discharge their criminal records. To correct this injustice, Washington should either bar courts from imposing any LFOs on defendants who are indigent or allow such defendants to petition for remission of mandatory LFOs, thereby freeing people such as Ms. Conway from a lifelong purgatory of legal debt.

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