A person convicted of a crime owes a debt to society and restitution to the victim. But when judges tack on exorbitant fines and fees, that debt can turn into a virtual ball and chain to an impoverished defendant’s credit report.
In a recent unanimous ruling, the state Supreme Court rightly upended this practice. The case involved a woman named Briana Wakefield, who carried $1,345 in discretionary fines — those imposed by a judge that were not required — from three low-level misdemeanor offenses in Richland. The fines were not restitution either.
She was homeless, living on a $710-a-month permanent-disability check and has a serious mental illness. When she appealed in 2013, Wakefield was so broke that she “can’t even meet her basic needs at a bare-bones level,” according to an expert witness in the case.
The judge had no sympathy, even though state law requires consideration of “manifest hardship” in a defendant’s ability to pay court fines. The Supreme Court disagreed and set a firm precedent that judges must consider an indigent defendant’s ability to pay.
It was a good ruling because counties are tacking on discretionary court fines and fees to pay for their judicial systems, despite the fact that a vast majority of defendants are indigent.
King County is an exception, because judges recognize that these fines are, in effect, a tax on the poor. But Benton County — where Wakefield’s case originated — only recently stopped routinely jailing defendants who couldn’t pay, and did so only after being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
Washington’s court fines also carry one of the nation’s highest interest rates — 12 percent plus a $100 annual service charge. University of Washington professor Alexes Harris found there are at least 500,000 legal-financial-obligation cases statewide with average bills of $1,300 — not including restitution. They are routinely not collected, even though counties hire debt collectors to chase down defendants.
The Supreme Court, in a previous case, noted that “a person who pays $25 per month toward their (court fines) will owe the state more 10 years after conviction than they did when … initially assessed.”
A new $500,000 federal grant will help pay for a fee calculator that should help Washington judges determine a defendant’s real ability to pay. The Legislature also has a moral obligation to reconsider this modern day debtor’s trap and ensure counties have other means to fund their courts than by effectively taxing the poor.