Dec 2, 2022 - News

Washington leads nation in curbing regressive court fees, study says

Data: NCAJ; Map: Axios Visuals

While court fines and fees may be an annoyance for people who can afford them, they can lead poor and working-class people into a staggering cycle of debt and incarceration.

Driving the news: The National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School released a report this week showing Washington state ranked first in the nation for its efforts to address regressive fines and fee policies and decriminalize poverty in the judicial system.

Why it matters: A growing body of research shows the predatory nature of municipal court fines and fees across the U.S. Such regressive penalties remain a powerful driver of institutional injustice, according to a 2022 study published in the National Library of Medicine.

  • Fines and fees are levied at every stage of the criminal justice system.
  • People who are unable to pay face collateral consequences, including having their driver's licenses suspended, interest and penalties added to their original fines and being jailed for nonpayment.
  • Incarceration for court debts can cause people to lose housing, jobs and in some instances, custody of their children.

Washington state got high marks for policies and legislation that:

  • Require courts to look into someone's ability to pay before imposing fines, fees, assessments and surcharges;
  • Require the government to prove that someone has willfully not paid their court obligations before imposing other sanctions or sending them to jail;
  • Codify standards for fees based on people's ability to pay.

Yes, but: While Washington placed first, it scored 59 of 100 possible points, and no state received a passing grade, according to the NCAJ study.

In three categories, Washington scored zero points:

  • The state does not bar courts from using private collection agencies.
  • It has not abolished all fines and fees in juvenile court.
  • The state does not prevent the direct funding of law enforcement and courts by the revenue off fines and fees.

Details: To create the index, NCAJ looked at 17 policies deemed critical to a legal system that does not criminalize poverty. In 2020 — and again in 2022 — NCAJ researched state and local laws in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and graded them on a scale of 0 to 100 according to how their policies measure up.

The other side: Despite the failing grades, NCAJ said there are strong and persistent reform efforts from across the country.

  • In Washington, a judge ordered a moratorium on the state's practice of revoking the drivers licenses of people who failed to pay fines or appear in court after the ACLU of Washington sued.
  • Almost every policy contained in the primary benchmarks has been adopted in at least one state. That means states do not need to develop whole new policies, but can embrace what others are doing.
  • In the two years since NCAJ began researching fines and fees, more than a dozen states have taken steps to improve their policies.

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