Washington state's system for imposing fines and fees on people convicted of felonies is riddled with inequalities and is hindering individuals from rejoining society, says a report prepared for the state by University of Washington researchers.
The report for the Washington state Minority and Justice Commission, was released in February and is based on data from all 3,366 Washington State Superior Court cases decided during the first two months of 2004.
It shows that Hispanic defendants are assessed significantly higher fees and fines than whites and that people convicted in trials are assessed significantly higher fees and fines than those who plead guilty. It also shows that males are assessed higher fees and fines than women and that drug convictions result in significantly higher fees and fines than convictions involving violent charges.
Additionally, the data indicate that defendants with similar criminal histories and charges may accrue very different debt amounts depending on where in the state they are convicted.
The report indicates that many people who are assessed these obligations wind up owing more money after three years despite making payments. That's because of the 12 percent annual interest rate charged on the unpaid balance, which begins accruing when a person is sentenced.
Further, court records show that three years after sentencing in 2004, about half of the convicted defendants had paid nothing on the fees, fines, and restitution they had been assessed.
"The current system is patently illogical," says Katherine Beckett, a UW associate professor of sociology, who wrote the report with Alexes Harris, a UW assistant sociology professor. They were assisted by Heather Evans, a UW doctoral student. Beckett compared the existing system to debtors' prisons because individuals can be arrested and incarcerated again for not paying these fees and fines.
In addition to the data from the 2004 felony cases, the report draws on interviews with 50 people with these obligations in King, Pierce, Clark, and Yakima counties, as well as state Department of Corrections personnel, county clerks, and defense attorneys.
The UW researchers say their research suggests that imposition of these penalties can have far-reaching effects.
"Placing these financial obligations on largely poor people is counterproductive and is a barrier to successful reentry into society," says Harris. "It is like trying to draw blood from a stone."
She and Beckett noted that the majority of felons have difficulty finding decent housing and employment because of their criminal records, and can be trapped in a cycle of poverty that also affects their spouses and children. Slightly more than half of those interviewed were living on incomes that fell below the federal poverty line. Lack of employment also hinders their ability to pay legal financial obligations, putting them at risk for being re-arrested because they have not paid their fees and fines. Some felons become discouraged and live on the margins of society, while others return to criminal activity.
While the report notes higher fines and fees imposed on Latinos compared with whites, there was no significant difference in those given to blacks compared with whites. Because of the small number of Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders in the sample of cases, no meaningful conclusions could be drawn about those groups.
The report recommends reforms calling for:
Placing a moratorium on the assessment and collection of such fines and fees, other than restitution and a mandatory $500 victim penalty assessment fee, until concerns raised by the report are addressed. Also, neither of these charges should be subject to interest, it says.
Allowing poor defendants to pay their obligations through community service and services to people directly harmed by their prior criminal behavior.
Adoption of legislation that automatically restores the civil rights, including voting rights, of Washington residents with a felony conviction when they complete their jail or prison sentence.
Creation of a statewide database to consolidate information about legal debts from all municipal and county sources to reduce collection costs and simplify the repayment system.
"We want to believe that regardless of who you are and where you live, you will get the same treatment in court. But that's not the case when it comes to these fines and fees," says Harris.
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