Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Huge inequalities found in Washington's system for court-imposed fines and fees

Huge inequalities found in Washington's system for court-imposed fines and fees | University of Washington News and Information, Feb. 24, 2009:

Washington state's system for imposing fines and fees, or legal financial obligations, on people convicted of felonies is riddled with inequalities and is hindering individuals from rejoining society, according to a report prepared for a state commission by University of Washington researchers.

The report for the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission based on data from all 3,366 Washington State Superior Court cases decided during the first two months of 2004, shows:
  • Hispanic defendants are assessed significantly higher fee and fines than whites.

  • Individuals convicted in trials are assessed significantly higher fees and fines than those who plead guilty.

  • Males are assessed higher fees and fines than women.

  • Assessment of fees and fines varies by jurisdiction and the data indicate that defendants with similar criminal histories and charges may accrue very different debt amounts depending upon where they are convicted.

  • Drug convictions result in significantly higher fees and fines than convictions involving violent charges.
The report was prepared by two UW Sociology professors, Katherine Beckett and Alexes Harris.
The UW researchers said 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," said Harris. * * *

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 these fees and fines. Some felons become discouraged and live on the margins of society while others return to criminal activity.

While the report noted higher fines and fee imposed on Latinos compared to whites, there was no significant difference in those given to blacks compared to 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 currently mandatory $500 victim penalty assessment fee, until concerns raised by the report are addressed. * * *

  • 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.
The full report is Katherine Beckett, Alexes Harris & Heather Evans, The Assessment and Consequences of Legal Financial Obligations in Washington State (Aug. 2008).

Although the report appeared six or seven months ago, it apparently didn't get any coverage before last week. Press coverage:
  • State courts unfair to men, minorities, UW study alleges, Seattle Times, Feb. 25, 2009.
    Beckett and Harris turned over their study to the commission in August, but the UW released the study to the public on Tuesday. It's unclear why the report wasn't released directly by the commission. [It is on the commission's website.] Officials with the commission didn't return calls for comment on Tuesday.

    Beckett believes the study, which also includes interviews with defense attorneys, county clerk staff and convicted criminals, may finally show state and local officials the evidence they need to support a systematic overhaul.

    King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said he has little sympathy for the disparities cited in the report. He believes fines are a good idea because they "hit people where it hurts."

  • Report finds inequalities in Wash. criminal fines, Seattle P-I, Feb. 24, 2009.
    The researchers first completed the report last fall for the state Minority and Justice Commission, and the university released it to reporters on Tuesday, as the Legislature weighs three bills that concern the penalties.

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