Washington state is one of five states selected for a new U.S. Department of Justice grant to study and improve the use of fines and fees in the justice system, U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes announced Thursday.
Under the terms of the grant, the state Minority and Justice Commission will receive $499,816 to study the impact of legal financial obligations in courts across the state and develop a calculator that judges at all levels can use to determine an offender’s ability to pay and a realistic payment schedule.
Research to date indicates indigent offenders are unable to pay significant fines and fees, and that failure to pay can ultimately result in additional jail time, Hayes said.
“Equal justice and due process are critical elements in the assessment of fines and fees in state and local courts,” Hayes said.
“This grant, endorsed by prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, court clerks and others, is an excellent step in assisting the Washington state court system to ensure the enforcement of fines and fees is done in a way that is fair to all.”
According to the grant application, the use of legal financial obligations varies widely across the state and across various court levels.
Recent court rulings require judges to make individualized rulings on the amount of fines and fees based on a defendant’s financial situation, but many judges are unsure how to individualize the process.
In addition, Washington has one of the highest interest rates on unpaid fines and fees at 12 percent.
The state Minority and Justice Commission will bring together a stakeholder group to study how legal financial obligations are assessed in Washington.
The group will explore a calculator currently used in Edmonds Municipal Court to see whether computer software can make the calculator a useful tool in courts across the state, Hayes said.
Grant funding will pay for a software company to work on the calculator to make it as easy to use as a smartphone app, she said.
The calculator will be used as a pilot project in the Edmonds Municipal Court and in one Superior Court in the state. The Superior Court will be selected for the pilot project based on whether defendants there are facing additional jail time for failure to pay court fees and fines.
In endorsing the state’s grant application, the state Office of Public Defense wrote, “Critically, legal financial obligations have been shown to disproportionally impact people of color, who disproportionally live in poverty.”
The Director of I Did The Time, an advocacy group that works to assist former defendants as they re-enter society, endorsed the grant application, writing, “Our organization has been fighting to increase public awareness about the costs of legal financial obligations (LFOs) on individuals and families who stay tied to the system, forever at risk of returning to jail when they cannot find work, are not able to work due to disability status and/or can never get out from underneath the crushing increase in fines due to the oppressive interest rate.”
The association of state prosecutors also endorsed the study:
“Our primary concern will remain the imposition and collection of actual victim restitution. The victim penalty assessment and the DNA database fee are also important in providing services and protection to crime victims.
“Beyond that, either mandatory or discretionary legal financial obligations should be re-evaluated for appropriateness of imposition and amount. We believe the imposition of interest on legal financial obligations in Washington state should be reduced or, possibly, eliminated.”
The other states receiving grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance under this program are California, Louisiana, Texas and Missouri.