Legal Services Day clears $1.5 million in court fees
Government fines can multiply like flies, with late fees and administrative charges stacked one atop another until a simple citation is an unpayable burden.
But in Multnomah County, a new program lets folks give back — or get help — in order to clear their debts off the books.
Legal Services Day, which actually reoccurs every other month, offers waivers of fines at a rate of $100 per hour for completed community service or treatment for substance abuse. Since the program began in June, 2017, prosecutors have wiped out more than $1.5 million in fines and processed approximately 2,300 cases.
"I'm trying to get myself straightened out," explained Frank Whitesell, his voice just a raspy whisper as he drew another cigarette from a pack of Camel Reds. "I got some fines, got to get my drivers license."
Whitesell was one of hundreds to gather for the seventh Legal Services Day held at The Rosewood Initiative, a community center located near the corner of Southeast Stark Street and 162nd Avenue on Portland's border with Gresham.
The event is publicized solely by word of mouth, but has already grown so popular that the line on Friday, June 8, stretched across the storefront of the Su Casa Super Mercado next door. Many people bring folding chairs while settling in to wait their turn.
"It's helping people get back on their feet — and they're doing it by earning it," said attorney Thalia Sady, who heads the community law division at Metropolitan Public Defender.
"Having outstanding fines and fees in criminal cases and traffic cases is a significant barrier for people," added Deputy District Attorney Anna Fuller. "(This) allows people to remove those barriers so they can access better jobs, better housing and have an easier time contributing to the community."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Legal Services Day? It didn't cost taxpayers a dime.
The judges, district attorneys and public defenders staffing the program are all volunteering their time, with the total donation valued at a minimum of $35,000.
Advocacy by Commissioner Lori Stegmann spurred Multnomah County to set aside about $100,000 for the program, concurrent with $130,000 in marijuana tax revenue going forward. But those funds are going toward rent and reimbursement of supplies and snacks from The Rosewood Initiative, plus the hunt to start hosting Legal Services Day in North Portland.
Getting back behind the wheel was Mali Rager's reason to be there. The Salem woman has let local court fees sit for over a decade, but hopes to get her driving privileges reinstated after volunteering with Habitat for Humanity's ReStore.
"$100 an hour — it's fantastic," she noted, "and a lot of people need it."
Daniel Kaptur of the Madison South neighborhood received about $300 in fines following a dispute with a neighbor in his apartment complex last year. But like most people who go through the program, he ended up "over volunteering," spending 12 hours packing boxes at a Meals On Wheels warehouse.
"Very interesting operation they have over there. Very organized, very clean," the 73-year-old said.
As for the fine?
"I'm retired and I'm on Social Security and I just can't afford it."