At DPD, a new unit helps people reclaim their lives

For years, Detric Johnson felt as though there was nothing he could do to erase the mistakes of his past. He faced more than $10,000 in legal financial obligations (LFOs), a crippling burden. He had felonies on his record, most of them 25 years old. Without a driver’s license, he couldn’t land a job.

“My life was in a shambles,” he said.

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Detric Johnson, with his daughter Adryanna.

All that changed over the course of a few months, when an old DUI and another driving charge caught up with him and he was assigned a public defender at the Department of Public Defense. Sarah Wenzel, his attorney, was able to get the charges reduced without him having to serve time in jail. When he told her about his LFOs, she referred him to Lou Manuta, an attorney in DPD’s post-conviction unit who met with him and quickly began working through his debt, LFOs from a couple different jurisdictions.

Earlier this month, Detric learned that the last of his LFOs were extinguished, thanks to Lou’s help. He was able to get a driver’s license. He just landed a job as a meat cutter at Safeway. Lou is now working to get his old felonies removed from his record.

Detric marvels over the way his life has changed. “This is the most free I’ve been since I was 18 or 19 years old,” he said, holding his 3-year-old daughter Adryanna on his lap. “I’m like a new man.”

DPD started its post-conviction unit earlier this year, a two-year pilot project staffed by the equivalent of one FTE attorney and one FTE paralegal. In an effort to get the most out of limited resources, DPD combined the county funding for the post-conviction unit with funding from the City of Seattle for a unit dedicated to addressing the collateral consequences of criminal involvement. The result is that three attorneys – Charlie Klein, Josh Treybig, and Lou, all with considerable background in civil legal aid and supported by Joey Feng, a paralegal – are able to spend some portion of their workday on post-conviction work.

The attorneys in the new unit work with clients to address two intertwined issues: They help people get felony and misdemeanor convictions vacated (meaning they no longer show up on their records), and they work to extinguish LFOs. Already, their impact is considerable.

Since the beginning of 2019, more than 200 clients have been referred to the post-conviction unit. The unit has resolved 50 LFO cases and gotten nearly $80,000 in fines and fees waived. More than 60 convictions have been vacated and many more are in process.

“The need is clearly great,” Anita Khandelwal, DPD’s director, said. “It’s fantastic that we can help people so immediately and directly.”

LFOs – fees, fines, costs, and restitution imposed by the court on top of a criminal sentence – have long been identified as a great burden to those involved in the criminal legal system, barriers to their ability to rebuild their lives. According to the ACLU of Washington, the average LFO in a single case, including misdemeanors, is $1,128.

Thanks to the advocacy of social justice activists, two laws have gone into effect over the last two years that have helped to ease the burden. One ended the 12 percent interest rate on LFOs, a punitive aspect that added to the staggering debt many face. It didn’t wipe out past interest, but that interest is no longer accruing.

The other legislation – called the New Hope Act – made it possible to get multiple misdemeanor convictions vacated and ended some other onerous requirements. For instance, it makes it possible for someone with both a felony conviction and outstanding LFOs to get them addressed at the same time, but the situation is far more complex for someone with both a misdemeanor conviction and LFOs.

The result is a puzzling patchwork – an improvement for most of DPD’s clients but still confusing and flawed, Lou Manuta said. “It was complicated before. It’s complicated now.”

Even so, DPD’s post-conviction unit is proving a life-changer for countless clients, and all three attorneys have stories to tell.

Josh Treybig worked with a woman who had been convicted of prostitution nearly 30 years ago, during a hard stretch in her life. Now 65, she wanted to get the convictions vacated from her record. When Josh did so successfully, she wept at the news.

Charlie Klein recalls a client who had a Class B theft felony on his record as well as LFOs to pay. He’d been trying to get his record clean but couldn’t pay off his debts. It turned out, however, that the LFOs were so old Charlie was able to extinguish them easily; he then got the conviction vacated. “I got an effusive email from him. He told me he was appreciative beyond words,” Charlie said.

And then there’s Detric, who said Lou, his attorney, “saved my life.”

His troubles began at a young age, when he fathered a child he couldn’t support and started getting traffic infractions he couldn’t pay. “Before I knew it, I was overwhelmed by child support and tickets,” he said. The LFOs began adding up. He lost his license. He couldn’t get a job. “I thought I’d never get it together,” he said.

Then, earlier this year, he walked into Lou’s office and could hardly believe it when Lou told him he could help. The process took a while, but legally it was not challenging, Lou said. Most of the LFOs were so old that the court had no choice but to grant relief. When the last of the LFOs were cleared, Detric checked his credit score. It had shot up more than 200 points.

Detric’s life, by any measure, is still challenging. He has to take two separate buses each morning and evening to get his daughter to and from daycare and himself to and from his job at Safeway. His finances are tight. But for the first time in a few decades, he said, he feels hopeful.

He ticked off the changes in his life over just the last few months. “I went from being homeless to being housed. To not having daycare to having daycare. To not having a job to having a job.” Wiping away tears, he held his daughter tightly in his arms. “She got me going.”

“I’m like a normal American,” he added. “I feel I can now live.”

For more information about DPD’s post-conviction unit, call the department at 206-296-7662.

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