University of Washington project focuses on fines and fees that create 'prisoners of debt'

December 04, 2015

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, 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 White House and Department of Justice events this week focused on court-imposed fees and criminal justice system reform. Her new project furthers research that Harris conducted in Washington state, 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. 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 properties 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.

"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.

"One prosecutor told me, 'I regularly ask them to hold a cardboard sign by the side of the road,'" Harris said. "He said, 'Do you know how much money they can make?'"

In March, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that judges must assess defendants' ability to pay legal financial obligations and not impose them if they can't be paid. But whether judges will still impose the mandatory $600 in fees is unclear, said Harris, whose research was cited in the ruling.

In October, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sued Benton County over its court-imposed fees, alleging the county wrongfully punishes people for being poor. About 20 percent of inmates in the county's jails are serving time for nonpayment of fees, and those who can't pay are sent back to jail or can work on a county work crew to pay off their fines -- but must pay a $5-a-day-fee to do so.

Fines have always been imposed in the U.S. criminal justice system, but states began ratcheting up fines and fees in the 1990s and 2000s to help pay the costs of a swelling incarceration system. All states now charge defendants and offenders fees of some type, and all but two have increased court fees and fines since 2010, an NPR survey found. The practice raises questions about the fundamental purpose of punishment, Harris said.

"There are these two aims, and they're competing aims," she said. "One is to punish people and the other is to do cost recoupment. We need to have a broader conversation about what the point of punishment is.

"Should a punishment be set that all people can eventually achieve? If so, monetary sanctions are an unsurmountable sentence that many will never be able to fulfill. Does that mean they can never have a second chance and serve their debt to society?"

Collaborators on the project are Beth Huebner at the University of Missouri, St. Louis; Karin Martin at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Mary Pattillo at Northwestern University; Becky Pettit at the University of Texas, Austin; Sarah Shannon at the University of Georgia; Bryan Sykes at the University of California, Irvine; and Chris Uggen at the University of Minnesota.
For more information, contact Harris at or 206-685-4763.

University of Washington

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