Washington lawmakers seek smoother path to redemption for formerly incarcerated residents

Mar 5, 2019

Carolina Landa’s 12-year-old son has a new obsession: an old Scooby-Doo movie.

It’s part of Zach’s life with autism. He fixates on certain objects — a movie, sometimes food, anything he needs to feel safe — but has difficulty communicating since he’s also nonverbal.

Landa can tell when Zach is stressed out and needs calming. But it’s not as easy for his teachers, who sometimes struggle with his outbursts, or meltdowns, as they’re called for kids on the spectrum.

What would help, Landa says, is volunteering at Zach’s school. But the likelihood that her application would be approved is slim, since Landa has been to prison. The Olympia School District, like many in Washington state, doesn’t always say yes to the formerly incarcerated.

“That is the number one thing that happens with all of us that have been formerly incarcerated,” said Landa, who was released from prison in 2014 after serving almost four years for drug charges. “We go anywhere — are they going to do a criminal background check? Because if they are, it’s a no-go.”

Landa attends a meeting at The Evergreen State College for the Sustainability in Prisons Project on Friday, March 1, 2019. SPP is an organization at Landa's school that aims to reduce recidivism while improving human well-being and ecosystem health.
Credit Shauna Sowersby / The (Tacoma) News Tribune

The stain of a criminal record complicates life’s basics when people are released back into their communities: from finding a place to live, buying insurance or, in Landa’s case, volunteering at her son’s school.

In fact, thousands in Washington state continue to face barriers even after they’ve turned their lives around. Some can tap into a process to clear their records, giving them a fresh start. But the process is complicated, lengthy and not always accessible.

Now, after outcry from advocates for criminal justice reform, lawmakers in the state Legislature are rethinking the calculus on who can clear criminal records and when. The plan, called the New Hope Act, would make it easier for people to leave their past behind by cutting wait times and expanding access to the record-clearing process.

“We cannot just lock people up in prison and say your life is over,” said state Rep. Drew Hansen, the Bainbridge Island Democrat sponsoring the measure. “We need to do something, many different somethings, so that there is life waiting on the other side.”


So far, the measure’s odds look good. It unanimously passed the House and has garnered near-universal support from prosecutors, criminal justice reform advocates, and lawmakers across the political spectrum who see it as a common sense tweak to the justice system.

Some of its popularity comes from the fact that the country’s stance on crime has softened as of late. Virtually every state has passed legislation in the past five or six years to help the formerly incarcerated get back on their feet, said Margaret Love, the executive director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center.

Love, who tracks re-entry reform in every state, says it’s part of a cycle. First, we pass laws that are tough on crime.

“Then we realize that maybe we’ve been too tough on crime, and there have been some people caught up in the justice system who really deserve a second chance,” Love said.

Zach pulls his mother's hair in a moment of excitement after her friend, Ev, arrives at their home to take them to his therapy appointment on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. The arrival of new guests is sometimes enough for Zach to get overly excited, Landa says.
Credit Shauna Sowersby / The (Tacoma) News Tribune

There are other reasons, too. Appetite to build new prisons is dwindling in Washington. Lawmakers are looking toward cheaper ways of addressing capacity problems within the state Department of Corrections. Recidivism rates remain high, and research suggests barriers for the formerly incarcerated don’t help.

But one major sticking point has bound Democrat and Republican lawmakers across the country and in Washington — economics. Preventing the formerly incarcerated from getting jobs is bad for growth.

That’s the logic the Koch Brothers, a pair of wealthy conservative donors, recently used when they sent a representative to urge Republican state lawmakers to support re-entry reform in Washington. And it’s one the state made headway on last year, when it banned most employers from discriminating based on criminal history.

“So it’s partly efficiency and partly public safety,” Love said. “But also part of a philosophical commitment to fairness and redemption, if you will.”

Landa tells Zach to collect his clothing from the kitchen floor of their home in Olympia after he returns home from school on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Zach typically prefers to not wear clothing, and likes to immediately take it off as soon as he returns home, Landa says.
Credit Shauna Sowersby / The (Tacoma) News Tribune


Now, the New Hope Act could push Washington further into the foray of re-entry reform by allowing more people to access the record-clearing process, including those convicted of violent crimes such as minor assault and robbery.

More importantly, the measure would shave years off the lengthy timeline for clearing someone’s record.

Currently, people must pay off any fines or fees associated with their incarceration, then wait as long as three years to a decade — depending on the severity of their convictions — before being able to petition a judge. The new measure changes that by allowing the waiting period to start as soon as someone gets out, instead of awaiting payment.

This could help thousands of people who have yet to settle their legal debt and access the record-clearing process. But some say it glances over the more glaring issue at hand — the fact that people have to pay these fees in the first place.

Since the 1980s, Washington has been issuing more and more legal debt as a way to help fund the criminal justice system. But some say the strategy is misguided and disproportionately cuts across class and racial lines.

Landa reads a note from teachers on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019 that starts with, 'very hard day for Zach.' Because Landa isn't allowed to go to Zach's school, she must rely on notes passed on from his teachers to keep her updated on daily items such as behavior and progress.
Credit Shauna Sowersby / The (Tacoma) News Tribune

“You can’t get blood from a stone,” said Alexes Harris, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington who also leads the country on legal debt research. “There’s no way that someone who is unemployed or underemployed could get out from under this debt.”

Harris has found that people with legal debt across Washington are often poor, struggle to find work, and sometimes strain family relations in order to pay them. Until recently, one county was even jailing people who failed to meet their minimum payments.

“If we don’t remove any of the fiscal barriers for people then this has no bite,” Harris said.

Then there’s the legal maze people have to navigate in order to clear their records, which can be difficult to do without a lawyer.

Some prosecutors are trying to make the process more straightforward. Criminal justice reform advocates, meanwhile, are working to pair lawyers with people who can’t afford them. But demand still outweighs supply, and only a fraction of the formerly incarcerated end up getting advised on how to best settle their payments.

“A lot of people end up doing one of a couple things,” said Nick Allen, a lawyer with Colombia Legal services who has consulted people on how to clear their records for almost a decade. “They take the head-in-the-sand approach because this is overwhelming, or make small payments of five or 10 dollars a month for what in some circumstances can be the rest of their life.”


Still, demand for the record-clearing process has been growing in some parts of the state, including King County where the prosecutor’s office recently doubled the portion of its staff that helps with these requests.

And many acknowledge there’s been some progress, albeit slowly, when it comes to chipping away at the issue of legal debt. Last year, state lawmakers eliminated interest on all fines save for payments to victims. A decade ago, people got back the right to vote even if they were still paying.

Zach stirs a pot of mashed potatoes as Landa washes dishes on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Landa said one of Zach's favorite things to do in the house is cook, so she gives him small tasks he can help with in the kitchen.
Credit Shauna Sowersby / The (Tacoma) News Tribune

Hansen, the measure’s sponsor, says he will continue reforms to the record-clearing process, including legal debt, in coming legislative sessions.

“We want to take these big things and change them now when we can, when there’s bipartisan momentum behind it,” Hansen said. “And then if there’s more we need to do to look more globally at the vacation process of course we’d be open to doing that.”

Even if the New Hope Act becomes law, Landa says she has another decade before she’d be able to settle her debt. That means Zach could be finished with school by the time she’s eligible to clear her record.

But Landa isn’t letting that faze her. She has a lot to look forward to: family, her partner, her June graduation from The Evergreen State College, and most importantly, Zach.

“I always have to be hopeful,” Landa said. “Because without hope, what do we really get up for in the morning?”

Landa greets Zach outside their home in Olympia as he arrives from school on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Landa is unable to go to Zach's school because of her felony record, so she must be able to meet him at home when he is finished with school.
Credit Shauna Sowersby / The (Tacoma) News Tribune