Photo depicting the Washington State Capitol building exterior on a gray day.

OPINION: Washington’s Punitive System of Fines and Fees Must Be Dismantled

by Evan Walker

Ongoing police brutality toward People of Color — particularly Black, Indigenous, and Latino people — and efforts to shed light on the racism baked into our legal systems are contributing to a heightened public conversation of the purpose and impact of policing and prisons. A lesser-known part of our criminal legal system, however, is its sprawling network of fines and fees. 

These fines ensnare people interacting with this system in devastating cycles of debt and create massive barriers to post-conviction livelihood — and they must be eliminated. Throughout Washington State and the West Coast, there is growing momentum on this issue, and legislation before State lawmakers would begin to make critical progress. 

In Washington State, people convicted of a crime can be charged fines and fees, also called “legal financial obligations” (LFOs). Mandatorily assigned LFOs are assessed at $500 per felony and $250 per misdemeanor offense. Courts can assign additional fines and fees at their own discretion. And due to interest that can accrue on some of these LFOs, this debt can balloon to staggering levels. 

For example, Eddie Lemmon, the plaintiff in the current Lemmon v. Pierce County case, experienced a court debt increase from $800 imposed at sentencing to $2,000 due to additional fees and interest because of his inability to pay.

Courts may then send collection agencies after people who cannot pay. These collection agencies take even more from struggling people and communities by adding arbitrary fees and charging huge interest rates on top of LFO debt — as much as 50% of the total outstanding debt.

Unlike court inquiries into people’s ability to pay discretionary LFOs, collection agencies’ profits come from fees based off the total amount of LFOs from their court sentence, regardless of their ability to pay. Since people would be able to pay off LFO debts much faster without the excessive fees and charges added by collection agencies, these fees serve only to deepen and prolong the indebtedness of people convicted of criminal offenses.

At the heart of both minor criminal offenses and unpaid fines and fees are extreme economic inequities. Too many people simply do not have resources to afford essentials, like food and shelter, let alone debt payments. And yet, many courts are incentivized to charge larger LFOs that aren’t based on the severity of a crime but on the fact that courts rely on these fines to fund their operations. This perpetuates a vicious cycle in which Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are overrepresented in and over-enforced by the criminal legal system — while also being made to fund the very court systems that uphold this unjust system. 

For someone without money, it doesn’t matter the size of the fee. They simply cannot pay it. This is evident from the more than $2.5 billion in unpaid court fines and fees in our state, which grows by tens of millions of dollars each year. And in cases in which victims should be paid restitution (compensation for harm or property loss or damage), the prioritization of LFOs over the economic and social rehabilitation of people who’ve been convicted decreases their ability to actually pay any restitution.

The result of this illogical LFO system isn’t just that courts and victims aren’t receiving fees. The reality is that too many people charged with LFOs, and their families and children, face crushing debt payments. This can lead to housing, job, and food insecurity as well as putting off other essential needs. Being unable to keep up with these payments can lead to potential rearrest, imprisonment, and driver’s license suspension — to name just a few consequences. 

These impacts extend beyond the people convicted of a crime. It harms their loved ones and social networks, falling especially heavily on BIPOC communities. Due to compounding racist structural barriers, Black and Latino people hold this debt for longer periods of time. In essence, LFOs serve no one but the collection agencies who profit off unpaid court debt.

Despite this, communities of people impacted by fines and fees and their loved ones in Washington are leading efforts to support one another in accessing LFO relief and pushing for bold reforms. Recent “expungement days” in Pierce and Kitsap Counties provided legal support to clear people’s eligible LFO debt and vacate felonies and misdemeanors from their records. While these high-impact, community-driven events have a life-changing impact for people struggling with LFO debt, these fines and fees needlessly prevent people from regaining stability post-conviction in the first place.

Thankfully, there is a growing movement to change this. In 2020, California eliminated 23 court administration fees — effectively canceling $16 billion of debt. And state courts in Washington and Idaho have found the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay LFOs unconstitutional. 

Nonetheless, there is much more to do. Needed actions include enacting new equitable sources of funding for courts, eliminating all court and service fees and reducing LFOs assessed, prohibiting predatory debt collection practices, and canceling outstanding debt tied to LFOs. These changes would promote justice and economic security by alleviating extreme financial hardship among thousands of struggling Washingtonians and their families and communities.

Of critical importance in the near term, State lawmakers must pass House Bill 1412/Senate Bill 5486. This legislation would increase the opportunities for LFO relief by waiving mandatory fees and interest on restitution fines for people with limited or no ability to pay, and it would also limit the amount of time these people owe fines and fees. The bill should be further strengthened to entirely eliminate mandatory fees for people who do not have the ability to pay LFOs. 

Our collective reckoning with centuries of racial injustice within our institutions calls us to question the purpose and impacts of our punitive legal system, among many other systems. This must include taking bold actions to dismantle the unjust structures of fines and fees so people convicted of offenses can rebuild their lives with the dignity everyone deserves.

Evan Walker is a policy analyst at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, an organization that works to advance the economic well-being of people in Washington.

📸 Featured image of the Washington State Capitol building is attributed to SounderBruce (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

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