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Who owes whom? Prison debt stands as barrier to reform

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PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - When Roy Jay found limo drivers whose debt from court fees and pre-prison traffic citations were keeping them from getting auto insurance, he started Project Clean Slate.When Gary entered Oregon’s prison system in 2008 he owed $775 to Lane County for fines and court costs stemming from a prior conviction for driving with a suspended license.

He’d been sentenced to 66 months incarceration on a variety of robbery, drug and failure to appear charges. The $775, he figured, was the least of his problems. He’d be able to take care of that easily after he was released.

But upon his release in 2013, Gary found out his $775 debt had grown to $7,960. The county charges had been collecting interest. County officials told Gary they’d tried to make contact but couldn’t find him. Consequently, they’d sold the debt to a professional debt collection service that had been adding huge annual interest charges. Good luck working with them. Oh, and until you take care of the debt, Gary was told, you can’t get an Oregon driver’s license.

It’s enough to make an ex-convict give up, Gary says. Or, return to crime in an attempt to secure money for a fresh start.

“Prison debt is everyone’s problem,” Gary says. “When you can’t pay it and you have no other option, then you go back to whatever flavor of crime you’re used to. You re-offend and go back to prison and everyone’s paying again.”

Gary prevailed on family members to pitch in and pay off his fines and court costs. He became a mentor at Portland halfway house Phoenix Rising, helping newly-released prisoners adjust to life on the outside. He has a regular job restoring habitat for a private company, and he is attending Portland Community College with the goal of earning an environmental management degree.

And those debts he paid off? New ones just keep on coming. He’s now been hit with approximately $11,000 in other back fines, much of it interest from unpaid fees from his days as a criminal. He claims that since he paid off his primary county debt, he’s getting paperwork on fines that he’d never heard of before.

“I have the weird feeling that once you’ve established this pattern of, ‘Oh, you’ll pay a debt,’ then it feels like they’re coming out of the woodwork,” Gary says.

Gary’s story is pretty typical, says Roy Jay, president of the African American Chamber of Commerce in Oregon. Jay started Project Clean Slate in 2005 to help released convicts with their debts and driver’s licenses. He says 8,000 ex-convicts have gone through his program, which charges $350, and many have outstanding fines and court fees three or four times what Gary faced. Most of the charges are the result of failure to appear in court and traffic fines, plus interest.

“You’re in a hole from the time you walk through that (prison) gate,” Jay says. Many of his clients find that as a result of court fines, parole or probation fees (offenders must pay the $35 a month cost of their own monitoring), child support and interest, most clients who find employment also find a huge chunk of their paychecks being garnished by the state.

“Why don’t we give them a real second chance?” Jay says. “Let’s write this off.”

Clean Slate clients can trade up to 80 hours of community service to wipe out traffic fines and court costs. They also have to attend a personal community responsibility class. Then Jay works with the county district attorney to remove minor convictions from the records of clients who have stayed clear of the law for at least three years.

Second chance

or victim assistance?

Jay started Clean Slate after he found he could not hire drivers for his limo company because the applicants couldn’t get insurance due to their dirty records for past speeding violations and failures to appear in court. Many of his clients leave prison owing $30,000 or more in public debt.

“This is like a cancer. You have to get it all removed,” Jay says. “How far do we really want to go as a society to help people...so they can become taxpaying citizens?”

Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill is a supporter of the program. “There is a lot to be said for people who take accountability and responsibility,” he says. And, Underhill acknowledges, most offenders who are willing to go through the Clean Slate program and perform community service simply don’t have the money to pay off the fines.

Without a driver’s license, most ex-convicts either won’t find work or will drive while suspended, which means, Underhill says, if they are in an accident they won’t have insurance. Some, he says, then panic and turn a minor accident into a hit and run.

“It’s a real domino effect of bad things,” Underhill says.

There is another point of view, says Steve Doell, founder of local advocacy organization Crime Victims United.

“Crime Victims United believes in second chances as does Mr. Jay. However, the fact is that most of these criminals are on their third, fourth, fifth, or more chance. How many bites of the apple do we as a society give them?” Doell says.

A portion of those fines paid by offenders are earmarked for funds set up to assist victims of crime, says Richard Barajas, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Organization for Victim Assistance. When offenders pay federal fines and fees for federal public defenders, some of that money is used to fund the Victims of Crime Act, which provides victim assistance money to states. In Oregon, the Oregon Crime Victims’ Compensation Program is partially funded by offender fines and provides money to crime victims for medical expenses, counseling and loss of earnings resulting from their victimization.

Barajas says he philosophically supports programs such as Clean Slate, but not at the expense of victim assistance.

Underhill says the program still makes sense because in reality, the fines erased by Clean Slate — from indigent offenders — were most likely never going to fund victim assistance, or anything else.

“We weren’t going to get that cash anyway,” he says.

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