The Assessment and Consequences of Legal Financial Obligations in Washington State


Fines and fees imposed in Washington State Superior Courts varied from a low of $500 to a high of $21,110 per criminal conviction.

To develop an understanding of how fines and fees are imposed and enforced in Washington State, this study analyzes 50 interviews with Washington State residents as well as data from 3,366 Washington Superior Court cases where the defendant was sentenced in the first two months in 2004. The study also makes several recommendations for reform.

You can read the full report here. 

Key Findings
  • Fines and fees imposed in Washington State Superior Courts varied from a low of $500 to a high of $21,110 per criminal conviction. This data excludes fines and fees imposed by civil and traffic courts.
  • Fines and fees were assessed in greater amounts when cases went to trial (“trial penalty”), when cases included drug charges, and when the defendant was Hispanic and/or male. Higher fines were also assessed in counties with more violent and drug crime, smaller populations, and counties that spent less of their budget on law and justice.
  • Defendants can be charged a fee for legal representation that is provided for them by the state upon a showing of indigence.
  • Defendants who plead guilty may not be aware of the financial consequences of that decision.
  • Interviews with formerly incarcerated WA residents confirmed that fines and fees reduce income and damage credit ratings, making it difficult to secure stable housing. This becomes even more harmful when combined with the barriers to stable employment that formerly incarcerated people face.
  • It’s not clear whether incoming revenue from fines and fees is greater than the expenditure required to recoup those funds.
  • Place a moratorium on the assessment of all felony and misdemeanor fines and fees other than restitution orders and the currently mandatory $500 Victim Penalty Assessment fee until the concerns identified are adequately addressed.
  • Allow indigent defendants to convert fines and fees to community service hours, or service provided to individuals directly harmed by defendants’ prior behavior.
  • Adopt legislation that automatically restores the voting rights of Washington State residents with a felony conviction upon completion of their sentence.
  • Create a statewide database to consolidate information about court debt from all counties and all sources, including municipal, superior, and district courts as well as the Department of Corrections.
Alexes Harris, Katherine Beckett, Washington State Minority and Justice Commission, Washington State Supreme Court