UW News

February 24, 2009

Huge inequalities found in Washington’s system for court-imposed fines and fees

Washington state’s system for imposing fines and fees, or legal financial obligations, on people convicted of felonies is riddled with inequalities and is hindering individuals from rejoining society, according to a report prepared for a state commission by University of Washington researchers.

The report for the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission, based on data from all 3,366 Washington State Superior Court cases decided during the first two months of 2004, shows:

• Hispanic defendants are assessed significantly higher fee and fines than whites.

• Individuals convicted in trials are assessed significantly higher fees and fines than those who plead guilty.

• Males are assessed higher fees and fines than women.

• Assessment of fees and fines varies by jurisdiction and the data indicate that defendants with similar criminal histories and charges may accrue very different debt amounts depending upon where they are convicted.

• Drug convictions result in significantly higher fees and fines than convictions involving violent charges.

In addition, the report indicates that many people who are assessed these obligations wind up owing more money after three years despite making payments. That’s because of the 12 percent annual interest rate charged on the unpaid balance, which begins accruing when a person is sentenced. With this interest charge, individuals who make regular monthly payments of $25 toward an average legal financial obligation of $2,540 would still be in debt 30 years later and owe $3,938.

Further, court records show that three years after sentencing in 2004, about half of the convicted defendants had paid nothing on the fees, fines and restitution they had been assessed.

“The current system is patently illogical,” said Katherine Beckett, a UW associate professor of sociology, who wrote the report with Alexes Harris, a UW assistant sociology professor. They were assisted by Heather Evans, a UW doctoral student. Beckett compared the existing system to debtors’ prisons because individuals can be arrested and incarcerated again for not paying these fees and fines.

In addition to the data from the 2004 felony cases, the report draws on interviews with 50 people with these obligations in King, Pierce, Clark and Yakima counties, as well as Department of Corrections personnel, county clerks and defense attorneys.

The UW researchers said their research suggests that imposition of these penalties can have far-reaching effects.

“Placing these financial obligations on largely poor people is counterproductive and is a barrier to successful reentry into society,” said Harris. “It is like trying to draw blood from a stone.”

She and Beckett noted that the majority of felons have difficulty finding decent housing and employment because of their criminal records, and can be trapped in a cycle of poverty that also affects their spouses and children. Slightly more than half of those interviewed were living on incomes that fell below the federal poverty line. Lack of employment also hinders their ability to pay legal financial obligations, putting them at risk for being re-arrested because they have not paid these fees and fines. Some felons become discouraged and live on the margins of society while others return to criminal activity.

While the report noted higher fines and fee imposed on Latinos compared to whites, there was no significant difference in those given to blacks compared to whites. Because of the small number of Asian-Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders in the sample of cases, no meaningful conclusions could be drawn about those groups.

The report recommends reforms calling for:

• Placing a moratorium on the assessment and collection of such fines and fees, other than restitution and a currently mandatory $500 victim penalty assessment fee, until concerns raised by the report are addressed. In addition, neither of these charges should be subject to interest.

• Allowing poor defendants to pay their obligations through community service and services to people directly harmed by their prior criminal behavior.

• Adoption of legislation that automatically restores the civil rights, including voting rights, of Washington residents with a felony conviction when they complete their jail or prison sentence.

• Creation of a statewide database to consolidate information about legal debts from all municipal and county sources to reduce collection costs and simplify the repayment system.

“We want to believe that regardless of who you are and where you live you will get the same treatment in court. But that’s not the case when it comes to these fines and fees,” said Harris.

That assertion is backed up by samples of court assessments in several cases with similar legal characteristics. For example, a man convicted of drug offenses in Pierce County was assessed $600 in fines and fees while one convicted in Lewis County was assessed $6,710. Similarly, a burglar in Spokane County was assessed $500 in fines and fees while a similar case in Clark County resulted in charges of $1,970.

Beckett said the researchers could not determine when financial legal obligations were first imposed in Washington, but there are records of them being handed out as early as 1901. However, such fines and fees are multiplying rapidly today, she said.


For more information, contact Beckett at 206-543-4461 or kbeckett@u.washington.edu or Harris at 206-685-4763 or yharris@u.washington.edu.

A copy of the report is available online on the commission’s Web site at http://www.courts.wa.gov/committee/pdf/2008LFO_report.pdf

Other individuals who can provide information and comments about legal financial obligations in Washington include:

Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, at 360-786-7688 or kline.adam@leg.wa.gov

King County Superior Court Judge Debra Fleck at 206-296-9273.

King County Councilman Larry Gossett at 206-296-1002 or larry.gossett@kingcounty.gov

Beth Colgan, Columbia Legal Services, at 206-464-0838, ext. 238.