Recent events close to home and across the country, as well as social justice and civil rights campaigns, have once again exposed the racial and economic inequalities long embedded in our criminal legal system. Discussions regarding “defunding,” “re-imagining” and even “abolishing” the system are widespread, and though reasonable debate exists on how to move forward, it is clear that the criminal legal system needs to change.
New and existing research on legal fines and fees illustrate their high social and economic costs and show that such policies are badly in need of reform. Thankfully, a bill that has passed the Washington state House and is now before the Senate, HB 1412, works to alleviate this problem. Championed by Reps. Tarra Simmons and Roger Goodman, among others, HB 1412 establishes standards to reduce legal fines and fees.
Legal fines and fees, or legal financial obligations (LFOs), are cash amounts people are sentenced to pay courts for traffic citations, and juvenile, misdemeanor and felony convictions. As with other criminal legal outcomes — such as arrest and incarceration — we know the system of legal fines and fees disproportionally penalizes poor, nonwhite and otherwise marginalized citizens.
People who are poor often find themselves locked into unpayable and ever-expanding debts and disruptive court supervision requirements that ultimately generate little public good. In fact, our research suggests consequences of LFO debt ripple across communities, extending past individual defendants to people who have never been charged or convicted of a crime.
In Washington state neighborhoods where residents are sentenced to LFOs at high rates, poverty rates increase over time. LFOs and poverty hang together, and neighborhoods where individual residents are heavily sanctioned see the consequences of their debt diffused throughout their communities. This is because the system of legal fines and fees directly extracts economic resources from defendants that could otherwise be spent there.
In addition, we propose the social costs of LFOs scale upward. Residents in neighborhoods with high rates of legal debt may be more heavily surveilled by police, exacerbating tensions between community and police. These same residents may find themselves stigmatized in ways that cut off their access to social services and social network connections. Subsequently, poor neighborhoods become poorer, and residents’ relationships with social institutions meant to alleviate poverty and inequality — like the criminal legal system — deteriorate.
We find communities of color are especially vulnerable to the sway legal debt holds over their economic futures. All things equal, LFO debts in neighborhoods predominantly occupied by people of color have more poverty-inducing power than LFO debts in mostly white neighborhoods. This suggests the system of legal fines and fees reproduces not just economic inequality, but racial inequality as well. Instead of alleviating social and economic inequality, the system of monetary sanctions perpetuates it.
In some neighborhoods, the fines, fees and costs related to violating the law are easily managed. But for citizens who live in poorer neighborhoods, a speeding ticket that cannot be paid will balloon with additional interest and collection fees. For example, jurisdictions can outsource collection of legal debt to private companies, and these for-profit businesses can add up to 50% of what was sentenced by the courts to the defendant’s overall debt.
Heading to court to fight a traffic citation can jeopardize some people’s livelihoods, and missing a restitution payment means judges, court clerks and police will work to issue summonses and warrants that ultimately serve little purpose for public safety but cost precious funds. In some cases, defendants can even be incarcerated for nonpayment, an expensive and arguably unconstitutional practice. Those valuable resources could be used for victim services and programs that address the root causes of crime. This may also explain the main finding in our research: More LFOs often lead to more poverty. This reality alone is a convincing argument in favor of re-imagining how legal fines and fees can be used to hold citizens accountable, and perhaps even suggests the entire system should be abolished.
The system of legal fines and fees is changing rapidly across the country as legislators work to implement state and local policy changes. In the past five years alone, 22 states and Washington, D.C., have passed reforms to decouple driver’s license suspension from nonpayment of court debt, local interventions have reduced or eliminated court fees (particularly for children), and many states have successfully pushed legislation that allows judges to waive or reduce fine and fee amounts. With passage of HB 1412, Washington state will be among the first to take initial steps toward addressing the important issue of restitution — a type of LFO meant to compensate victims directly for harm done due to a criminal act. In addition, it reduces the number of mandatory LFOs applied at sentencing.
The bill is a step in the right direction in the fight for criminal legal reform. This bill establishes alternative funding for crime victims and witness support programs that does not rely on LFO payments that may never materialize. Further, HB 1412 is aimed at preventing unpayable restitution sentencing owed to insurers and state agencies by allowing judges to waive or reduce these payments for our poorest citizens. When defendants are literally incapable of making restitution payments, no one benefits from locking them into legal debt. Not the court clerks, judges and police forced to chase money that doesn’t exist, not the person who cannot pay, and not the victim of a crime waiting on a payment that can never come. It is time to end LFO sentencing for people too poor to pay, and HB 1412 is a good start. We have research that suggests clear policy reform. What we need now is the will to make these changes happen.