The courtrooms of the County-City Building in downtown Tacoma are not usually happy places.
There are sometimes weddings and adoptions, graduations from drug and mental health programs.
But many visitors to Pierce County Superior Court, District Court and Tacoma Municipal Court are there on some of their worst days.
Wednesday was different.
Across the first floor of the courthouse the judges were smiling.
The attorneys had grins.
Perhaps most cheerful were the defendants, who arrived en masse to have thousands of dollars in discretionary fees waived as part of the county’s first Legal Financial Obligation Reconsideration Day.
“This is a chance for you to get a brand new start,” Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu told 41-year-old Thrett Brown as she signed paperwork that brought his fees from $3,000 to $500.
“Like I won the lottery,” Brown said. His was one of the first cases of the day.
He was one of 1,000 people who signed up for the event, which gave them a streamlined process to meet with volunteer attorneys and go before a judge to have various court fees waived.
A 2015 state Supreme Court decision emphasized that judges must consider whether a defendant has the ability to pay discretionary legal financial obligations before imposing them.
Brown’s fees were related to drug charges from 1999.
He told Yu he’s studying business communications and entrepreneurship at Tacoma Community College, which he hopes will help bolster a youth mentoring program he started years ago.
He said he saw one of the teenagers he works with at the event.
“At a young age, he gets the opportunity to see things working in his favor,” Brown said. “That blew my mind to see him as young as that getting this opportunity.”
Brown said his own reduced fees puts him “in a position to where I don’t think it’s too hard to pay off the extra that I have.”
Attorney Tarra Simmons said once he does, he’s eligible to get his criminal record vacated.
That would open up careers to him, Simmons said. He could be a teacher, for instance.
Simmons is the head of Civil Survival, a support and advocacy group led by formerly incarcerated people.
Simmons was released from prison in 2013, graduated law school and fought to become an attorney.
She was part of the coalition that put on the Pierce County event. She helped coordinate a similar event in Kitsap County in April and hopes to hold similar events in Thurston, Snohomish and Spokane counties in the near future.
“Six years ago my Burger King paycheck was being garnished for LFOs,” Simmons said.
She hugged Brown after his order was signed Wednesday. They both lobbied in Olympia for a law that took effect last year, which keeps interest from accruing on legal financial obligations, with the exception of restitution.
“I can’t do the legal stuff, but I’m glad I’m connected with someone who does,” Brown said.
It was especially meaningful that Justice Yu handled Brown’s case Wednesday, Simmons said. Yu signed the Supreme Court opinion that allowed Simmons to take the bar exam.
“I know that every person who goes before her today will leave with more dignity,” not just fewer fees, Simmons said.
“I had her?” Brown said. “That’s even better.”
Judges, volunteer defense attorneys, prosecutors, court staff and the Clerk’s Office were among those who worked to make the event happen.
“The number of helping hands around here on this project has just been incredible,” said Pierce County Superior Court Judge Michael Schwartz, who helped coordinate things.
“These legal financial obligations can be significant barriers to reentry into the community after criminal convictions,” Schwartz said.
Such debt can have effects on credit, whether someone can legally drive, and housing and employment prospects.
He said Pierce County Department of Assigned Counsel attorney Kelsey Page came to him about holding the reconsideration day after she talked to Simmons and visited the Kitsap County event in April.
“They’re entitled to this relief, but what’s hard is, they probably don’t have access to a lawyer,” Page said.
They did Wednesday.
She said many people helped make the day possible, including Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett.
“She called me back within five minutes to tell me that her office was in full support,” Page said.
Page noted that no money owed to crime victims, which is a mandatory cost, was being waived.
She said the need for court debt relief is far greater than the 1,000 people who signed up for help Wednesday. The slots were filled about nine days after the sign-up started.
“So many people have been impoverished by this for decades and have not been able to get out of it,” Page said. “... It’s about giving them a second chance, so that they’re not still entangled with the criminal justice system for something that happened years or decades ago.”
Nicholas Tarabochia, 44 of Tacoma, signed up after a clerk at the courthouse told him about the event.
“She really urged me to do it,” he said.
Tarabochia said he had assault cases from 1997 and 2002, plus some traffic infractions.
His fees dropped from $3,500 to $1,500 Wednesday. He hadn’t been able to cover the interest, alone, before.
“Not only did they not give me the third degree while they were doing it, they seemed happy to do it,” he said.
With that and his recently reinstated driver’s license, Tarabochia said he’s hoping to find work as a driver, maybe for a construction company.
As she waited in line, 43-year-old Carmen Quabner of Lakewood said reducing her court debt was going to make it possible for her to get her driver’s license.
That’s a requirement for many jobs, she said.
Quabner said she called the District Court recently, thinking she had a warrant.
The woman she spoke with told her about the event and emailed her a link to sign up.
“That’s a big thing for me,” Quabner said. “This is really helping me put my life back together. This is like a blessing, really. I feel like this is a big day for Tacoma.”
She hoped to have $10,000 in fees waived, maybe more.
Reached by phone later, she read off the fees that had been waived for her various Superior, District and Municipal Court cases.
They totaled more than $13,000.
She was thrilled that she found herself in front of Judge Schwartz, who she said handled a case for a family member years ago when he was an attorney.
“He was like: ‘Hey Carmen, how are you doing? You look great,’” she said. “I was so happy to see him.”
She said the wait was long — she got there at 8:30 and left about 1:45 — but well worth it.
“It wasn’t like no stress or none of that kind of stuff,” she said.
Different, she said, than other experiences she’s had there.
“Today was a good day in the courthouse,” Quabner said.