After a reform effort failed to reach the floor of the state Legislature this year, the fight continues to alleviate the burden that court-ordered fines and fees impose on indigent individuals.

House Bill 1412 would have given courts discretion to eliminate all mandatory legal financial obligations levied against a person convicted of a crime if the judge finds the person cannot pay. For all restitution ordered to a victim, a judge could waive the 12 percent interest accrual for those considered indigent.

Legal financial obligations (LFOs) are part of the punishment doled out to people found guilty of a range of violations from traffic infractions to felonies. Practices vary by county and state, but these fines, fees and surcharges are levied to support court costs and other government services.

Court debts can lead to driver license suspensions, loss of voting rights, challenges finding work and housing, and jail. It also prevents defendants from having their records vacated. These consequences perpetuate income inequities and disproportionately affect people of color and those representing vulnerable communities.

HB 1412 would have addressed those inequities by striking down laws that make some LFOs mandatory, says Chanel Rhymes, Director of Advocacy at Northwest Community Bail Fund. In addition to the option to waive fines, fees, and interest on restitution, the bill also would have given courts discretion to waive the victim penalty assessment and fines from previous cases based on inability to pay.

A 2015 decision by the state Supreme Court ruled that courts need to consider an individual’s ability to pay before determining LFOs. Since then, the Legislature has passed bills to achieve incremental progress toward fulfilling that obligation. This year’s bill would have advanced that effort.

However, the bill died in committee in February, weeks after it was introduced.

LFOs pose a barrier to people trying to rebuild their lives post-conviction, and have increasingly become more onerous. Nearly every state has increased criminal and civil court fees or added new ones since 2008, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. And the list of categories that can  trigger these penalties has grown longer.

These fines also more heavily affect people of color and the poor. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found in 2017 that LFOs are levied more heavily against Black and Latino people and residents of lower-income zip codes.

In Washington, the Fines and Fees Justice Center found that LFOs are higher for people who are Latino and/or male. The penalties also tend to be higher for cases that go to trial, drug cases, and in counties that have lower populations and smaller budgets for their courts and law enforcement.

Washington has made some progress in recent years. In 2018, the Legislature nixed the 12 percent interest on fines and fees and allowed the courts discretion to waive non-mandatory costs for indigent individuals. In 2009, lawmakers eliminated the payment of LFOs as a requirement for restoring voting rights.

People can petition the court to have their fines and fees reduced, but the process itself remains a barrier to people seeking relief.

The bill can be reintroduced next year, and people can still comment in support of the proposed law. Visit the bill’s webpage and click the green “Comment on this bill” button on the right.

More information about LFOs can be found at the ACLU of Washington.

Last Updated: September 7, 2021