Sheldon introduces bill providing relief from legal financial obligations

More flexibility for judges could reduce recidivism

OLYMPIA – A bill giving judges more leeway in imposing legal financial obligations during criminal sentencing was introduced Tuesday by Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, with the idea of raising the issue for the 2022 legislative session.

Washington lawmakers are in the final week of the 2021 legislative session, and are scheduled to adjourn on Sunday.

Senate Bill 5486 is modeled after a similar bill that was introduced in the House this year but failed to advance to the House floor for a vote. “I was disappointed we didn’t get a chance to deal with this important issue in the Senate this year, and I want to make sure we start the conversation for the next legislative session,” Sheldon explained.

“Convicted felons need to be responsible for the financial burdens they cause for crime victims and the judicial system. But we also need to recognize the state has an interest in their rehabilitation. When offenders have no ability to pay, these legal financial obligations can become a crushing burden, and it is all too easy simply to give up. Judges should be able to weigh carefully the impact of these legal financial obligations against an offender’s ability to pay.”

Sheldon’s bill, like the companion House measure, HB 1412, gives judges more discretion in imposing legal financial obligations. Judges would be allowed to waive restitution entirely if an offender is considered indigent at the time of sentencing or is unlikely to have the ability to pay in the future. The waiver would apply to payments to insurance companies and other entities, and would not affect restitution paid to crime victims as individuals.

Under current state law, courts may impose a variety of fees as part of the judgement and sentence. These include victim restitution, crime victim compensation fees, costs associated with prosecution and sentencing, and fines, penalties, assessments and interest. Restitution is required when an offender is convicted of a crime involving personal injury or property damage, except in extraordinary circumstances. Courts can modify the payback terms, but cannot reduce the amount ordered. Courts have greater flexibility in ordering payback of court costs.

The key point, Sheldon said, is that offenders remain under the jurisdiction of the courts until the obligation is paid in full, and the payback requirement can be extended by the courts up to 20 years. That can make it difficult for low-income offenders to find work and housing.

“Crime victims of course need to come first,” Sheldon said. “But we also want offenders to go straight when they are released. By giving judges greater flexibility, we make it easier for offenders to get back on the straight and narrow, and live within the law.”