The Burden of Court Debt on Washingtonians


On average, courts of limited jurisdiction in Washington assessed $695 per case, and Superior Courts assessed $1,302 in FY16 – FY17.

The majority of Washingtonians assessed legal financial obligations (LFOs) meet state indigency standards, and their low payment rates suggest their debts are uncollectible. In Washington, the inability to pay criminal justice debts can lead to the issuance of a warrant for arrest, jail time, the accrual of a 12 percent interest rate, and additional fees if the debt is transferred to a collection agency. This research brief sampled over 50,000 unique dockets where fines, fees, or other LFOs were imposed during FY 2016 and 2017 and used LFO data from courts of limited jurisdictions and superior courts in Washington to explore assessment and payment patterns. Researchers found few people fully satisfy their LFO debt within four years.

You can read the full text here.  

Key Findings:

  • 78 percent of people with LFO debt meet Washington’s indigency standard.
  • Only 44 percent of LFOs on misdemeanor cases and 8 percent on felony cases are paid.
  • Courts impose a $100 DNA collection fee and a mandatory victim penalty assessment– $250 for misdemeanors and $500 for felony convictions.
  • In all courts, 4 percent of people pay LFOs in full the day it’s assessed,  and only 20 percent make the full payment by the end of year two.


  • Abolish all fees assigned at conviction.
  • Restructure fines and restitution orders to account for ability to pay.
  • Identify equitable sources for funding the legal system.
Maria Rafael
Vera Institute of Justice