90 percent of felony defendants and 60 percent of misdemeanor defendants cannot pay the mandatory fines and fees assessed at sentencing.
People with low incomes, disabilities, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) shoulder much of the harm from the legal financial obligations (LFOs) levied in Washington’s criminal legal system. Although 70 percent of Washingtonians who receive court-mandated fines and fees cannot afford to pay them, many county and municipal courts have become reliant on LFOs as a source of funding for daily court operations. The use of fines and fees as punishment grew from the Nixon administration’s War on Drugs and state and local governments slashing taxes for wealthy residents and corporations in the 1980s, leaving a gap in funding for public priorities. As a result, LFOs extract resources from people convicted of offenses and their families, keeping BIPOC from financial stability. In addition, the state’s inadequate funding model of courts incentivizes county and municipal budgets to rely on charging LFOs. Reforming Washington’s LFO system would bring financial relief to struggling residents and create a more equitable court system. This brief highlights current reforms underway and makes further recommendations.
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- Washington ranks last in the nation in state funding for trial courts.
- County and municipal courts may impose more than 100 different fines and fees in the criminal legal system.
- In 2018, fines and fees generated $270 million in revenue across all levels of government in Washington.
- Private collection agencies add arbitrary fees and charge up to 50 percent on top of LFO debt.
- The average amount owed in fines and fees is $2,500 for felony convictions.
- $2.5 billion in LFOs have gone uncollected in Washington State.
- Revenue collected from LFOs amounts to 0.68 percent of the typical Washington state jurisdiction budget.
- Eliminate all court and service fee LFOs.
- Cancel debt tied to unpaid fines and fees and remove private debt collectors from the LFO system.
- Restructure the fine system to account for a resident’s ability to pay and the severity of the crime.
- The state should adequately fund courts through new and equitable sources.