Fiscal Pressures, the Great Recession, and Monetary Sanctions in Washington Courts

Using data from all municipal and district courts in Washington between 2000 and 2014, where a fine, fee, cost, or other legal  financial obligation (LFO) was imposed, the author analyzes the relationship between local government finances, the Great Recession, and the imposition of criminal justice debt. The author concludes that courts issued more debt during and after the recession, but government finances (tax receipts and expenditures) were only minimally linked to sentencing practices. 

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  • Between 2000 and 2014, the number of traffic infraction cases filed in both district and municipal courts increased while other categories remained stable. In municipal courts traffic infraction cases increased from 33 per 1000 residents to 69.3. For district courts traffic infraction cases increased from 1.1 per 1000 residents to 41.4.
  • The amount of LFOs issued also increased over the same period of time, reaching $8.55 per 1000 residents in district courts and $19.92 per 1000 in municipal courts. 
  • Washington courts initiated more cases with LFOs on average during and after the recession than they did before the recession, with the highest volume of cases in the years following the recession. 
  • Increases in LFO were a function of increased case volume not increased sentencing in court, as the number of cases increased, but the average amount ordered remained stable.
  • For  most  classes  of  offenses,  the  average sentenced amount slightly decreased between 2005 and 2013, and remained stable during the recession.
  • Authors observed higher levels of sentenced LFO debt in high property tax receipt jurisdiction district courts, and no clear relationship between property tax revenues and municipal court practices. 
Frank Edwards