Steven Long was a 60-year-old man living in his truck in Seattle, having lost his job and being evicted in 2014. His truck served not only as his home, but also contained all of his possessions and tools he needed for work. In October 2016, Long’s truck was impounded and towed by a contracted private towing company. The vehicle had been parked in the same space for more than 72 hours, which violated a city code. Long faced $547.12 to remove his car-home-work space from the company’s lot. He was a houseless, unemployed elder, and he was without his home for 21 days.   

In March, the Washington State Supreme Court will hear Long’s petition. An important concept the court will consider is whether our state’s system of fines and fees is excessive when charged to people who are poor. From traffic citations, juvenile, misdemeanor and felony convictions, people are charged fines, fees and payment costs related to a violation of the law, and additional costs for court processing and related “services” owed to private companies.

Policymakers’ and jurists’ assumptions have always been that these costs would “be proportioned to the wrong” and “not be so large as to deprive [a person] of [their] livelihood.” The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote these words in Timbs v. Indiana, a case that requires states to consider excessiveness in sentencing fines and fees. In the court decision, she likened the contemporary system of monetary sanctions to the 19th century practice of Black Codes. She wrote, the fines associated with Black Codes “subjugate[d] newly freed slaves and maintain[ed] the prewar racial hierarchy.” She continued, “For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history.” However, in practice, monetary sanctions have emerged as a “predatory” punishment imposed by the criminal legal system with a varied set of penological aims to punish, generate local and state revenue, and expand social control. 

For the past 13 years, I have researched the system of fines and fees, also called monetary sanctions. Research finds that when people are too poor to pay, their families, children and communities are harmed. This system affects individuals’ abilities to attain wealth, educational certification and degrees, maintain stable and safe housing, build credit and wealth, and even affects abilities to sustain employment. People can lose their driver’s licenses as well. This means they cannot bring their children to and from school and child care, and ironically, people are unable to get to their jobs to raise the money to pay their fines and fees.

In a recent report, my colleague and I found that for all types of cases filed in Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) in 2017, people of color are ordered fines and fees more frequently than white people in Seattle. Our analysis also shows that drivers of color, and in particular Black drivers, are far more likely than non-Black drivers to be charged with driving with a license suspended in the third degree following an SMC LFO (legal financial obligation). This implies that because of their inability to pay traffic citations, people of color are losing their ability to drive.

As citizens, we have an opportunity to change this system in our state. The Washington State Legislature is considering a bill that will help give relief to people too poor to pay their excessive fines and fees. HB 1412 “Relieving Legal Financial Obligations” will give people with outstanding LFOs a chance to rebuild their lives and to achieve economic stability. The policy change will give judges the discretion, post sentencing, to waive or reduce certain fines and fees based on a person’s current ability to pay. I encourage you to reach out to your representative and ask them to vote in favor of this legislation.

The criminal legal system of monetary sanctions is a permanent punishment for poor people, and disproportionately affects Black American, Latino/a and Native American people. A just system would give punishment that a person could realistically meet. Yes, all law violators should be accountable for offending. However, this accountability must be proportionate to the severity of the violation and ability to pay. Punishment should not be excessive. It must be achievable and should not mark people as undeserving and unlawful in perpetuity — much less block them from living safe and healthy lives, as happened to Steven Long when his home was taken.