January 2016 Bar Bulletin
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January 2016 Bar Bulletin

UW Project Focuses on Fines and Fees that Create 'Prisoners of Debt'

By Deborah Bach


Criminals are meant to pay their debts to society through sentencing, but a different type of court-imposed debt can tie them to the criminal justice system for life and impact their ability to move forward with their lives.

Though debtors’ prisons were eliminated in the United States almost two centuries ago, a modern-day version exists in the dizzyingly complex system of fines and fees levied against people as they move through the court system. Offenders are charged for everything from DNA samples to electronic monitoring devices, jury trials and even room and board while imprisoned. The fees can add up to thousands of dollars, and those who fail to pay are routinely jailed.

Little is known about how such fines and fees differ among or even within states, but a new University of Washington-based initiative will provide new insight on the issue. Alexes Harris, an associate professor of sociology, is the principal investigator of a five-year research project on monetary sanctions in eight states. The $3.9-million project, funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation,1 will be the first systematic study of how multiple states implement court-imposed fees.

The initiative will focus on Washington, California, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, Illinois, Georgia and New York. Harris and her collaborators at partner universities will research how legal fees and fines are applied at state and local levels, interview defendants and court officials and compile a data set that Harris hopes will foster a broader national conversation.

“This data doesn’t exist on a national level,” Harris said. “It’s an interesting puzzle to try to figure out.”

Harris is among stakeholders who attended recent White House and Department of Justice events focused on court-imposed fees and criminal justice system reform.2 Her new project furthers research that Harris conducted in Washington, and her findings will be detailed in her book A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as a Permanent Punishment for the Poor, slated for publication next summer.

Harris found that criminal offenders in Washington are charged a minimum of $600 in court fines and fees, and 12 percent interest starts accruing the day of sentencing and continues through the prison term. Fees and charges levied by other states may vary widely — in Arizona, for example, courts can impose a surcharge of 83 percent on any fines levied against prisoners, while in Louisiana, indigent defendants are charged a $40 public defender fee.

The average amount of fines imposed in a felony case in Washington is $2,540, according to a report last year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Columbia Legal Services.3 And though the report found that up to 90 percent of people charged with felonies in Washington are indigent, the fees are charged regardless of ability to pay. “Willful nonpayment” of fees, when someone is able to pay but does not, is a jailable offense under state law.

The practice “punishes people simply for being poor and brings little to no benefit to the government or the general public,” the report notes. “This system places severe, long-lasting burdens on persons living in poverty.”

For many people, Harris said, legal debt is a permanent burden that prevents them from rebuilding their lives after incarceration. One woman Harris met, disabled and partly deaf, was living with her ex-husband, three kids and her former father-in-law in a three-bedroom apartment in Kitsap County while working to pay off what she owed.

Her sentencing for 11 charges ranging from forgeries to possession of stolen property carried court fines of $13,000. With interest and collection surcharges, her debt had grown to just under $20,000 when it was transferred to a private collection agency. Her consequent poor credit was making it difficult for her to secure a lease on her own apartment.

“This is going to follow her forever,” said Harris. “We have this idea that you do the crime, you do the time and you can move forward. But the system marks poor individuals for life. They become prisoners of debt.”

Legal fines and fees disproportionately impact poor people, who are more likely to be arrested and charged, said Harris.

“These are often people living in poverty, people of color, people with disabilities, with mental health and substance abuse issues,” she said. “These are people who are already marginalized, and they just can’t pay the fees.”

An arbitrary system of enforcement and collection adds to the disparity. Harris researched court fees and fines in five Washington counties and discovered that the amounts charged, repayment requirements and enforcement varied widely. In one county, payments must be paid monthly each Thursday at noon or debtors are required to appear in court that afternoon. Spokane County previously required debtors who hadn’t kept up on payments to report to jail without a hearing, but in 2010 the state Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional.4

“There are these very, very different processes across the state,” Harris said. “They were completely different in every county I’ve looked at.”

Superior courts in Washington can impose more than 20 different fees at a judge’s discretion. Court clerks determine the minimum monthly payments, which start at $20 per charge but can be up to $50. In some jurisdictions, Harris said, sheriffs knock on doors to arrest debtors for nonpayment or round up those who are homeless, sleeping in parks or on streets. Debtors can be asked to use public assistance payments — or more questionable tactics — to pay their fees.

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