The Gristle

A New Hope

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

A NEW HOPE: A criminal conviction can complicate a person’s life— even after they are released back into their communities. It is more difficult to obtain a job, find a place to live, buy insurance, or volunteer in the community with a criminal conviction on your record. But a new law is helping courts in Whatcom County rehabilitate criminal convictions.

Signed into law last May by Governor Inslee, the New Hope Act addresses re-entry problems faced by people with criminal convictions by simplifying the process for obtaining certificates of discharge and vacating conviction records. The New Hope Act reduces the amount of time necessary to vacate a person’s criminal record. The Act went into effect in July 28.

“Washington’s recent ‘New Hope Act’ really does offer new hope to people who are struggling with felony conviction records,” writes Deborra Garrett, the presiding judge of Whatcom County Superior Court. “The law applies to all Superior Court cases—whether the sentence is recent or many years old. It allows our judges to reconsider the financial portions of felony sentences (other than restitution), based on a person’s financial circumstances, and to reduce those financial obligations to a level the person can pay. The new law also increases the types of cases in which a court may consider vacating a person’s conviction after the person has completed the sentence,” Judge Garrett noted.

Prior to passage of the New Hope Act people who were incarcerated needed to wait between three and 10 years—depending on the severity of the crime—after paying off any fees or fines associated with their conviction before being able to petition a judge to clear their record. Now, the waiting period starts as soon as they are released instead of waiting for payment in full. For individuals who do not serve any time in confinement or partial confinement and are not subject to community custody, the clock starts at the date of sentencing.

“In the past, the law included substantial fines and court costs in a felony sentence, and required interest at 12 percent per year,” Garrett noted. “This put many people thousands of dollars in debt. The New Hope Act allows a judge to reduce fines and fees, except for restitution to the victim, and to eliminate the interest that has accrued. Then, the person can make a realistic payment plan for any balance remaining.

“For people who have already served their time and met their other sentence requirements, paying off the financial obligations means the conviction can be ‘discharged’ (the law’s recognition that the sentence has been fully performed),” Garrett explained.

“The New Hope Act also permits the Court to vacate convictions for all but the most serious felony crimes (generally, Class A felonies and crimes of abuse or violence) after a person has fully completed their sentence and stayed out of criminal trouble for a set period of time (generally five to ten years depending on the circumstances). Vacating a conviction removes it from the person’s criminal record,” she said.

In some cases, if you pay your fines immediately, you could become immediately eligible to vacate your conviction.

“The Superior Court Clerk’s Office helps people prepare and file motions for reconsideration of their financial obligations.. Now is an especially good time to act,” she advised, ”because the court will soon refer delinquent accounts to a collection agency, adding collection fees to these accounts. The accounts of people who are working with the court will not be sent to collection, and our clerk’s office will continue to help people meet their obligations, discharge or vacate their convictions, and get on with their lives,” Garrett said.

The New Hope Act is one tool in a growing array of reforms intended to reduce perverse and unintended consequences of the criminal justice system. Many of these reforms have been championed by the county’s Incarceration Prevention & Reduction Task Force—a group of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, behavioral health specialists, elected leaders and citizens working on a broad array of reforms.

The task force reported out to Whatcom County Council last month, providing a periodic update on work the group had completed in 2019 and a forecast of work they’ll tackle in 2020. This work includes engagement with state legislators to address additional changes in rules and procedures, like New Hope, that may allow local governments greater flexibility to address criminal justice reforms.

In their report, task force members identified a number of opportunities within the criminal justice process where there are critical moments—called intercepts—in which a person with behavioral health disorders may be diverted into mental health and substance use disorder services. Other intercepts are available after a conviction that can help transition someone back to the community even before release and reentry.

“When released from incarceration, an individual may engage in programs that will continue to build on a foundation of healthy, positive, pro-social behaviors, with a goal of preventing future involvement in the criminal justice system,” task force members noted in their report.

The New Hope Act is a late stage of that latter category, helping reduce some of the enormous financial and social burdens that can endure for years following a conviction.

“A felony conviction is a serious matter, but it doesn’t have to put goals like finding a good job, buying a home or living without debt out of reach,” Garrett said. “The New Hope Act can help people meet their legal obligations and move ahead to better, happier lives.” 

To obtain more information on the New Hope Act,

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