Photo by Mac Smiff

A lawsuit and new legislation target changes to court fines and fees in Washington State.

On December 1, 2010, a letter was sent to Pierce County, Washington resident Eddie Lemmon. It was a notice from a clerk, about debt Lemmon owes the Pierce County Superior Court.

“According to our records you…are now delinquent on your [legal financial obligation] payments,” the clerk wrote. Thirty days later, the $900 in debt Lemmon’s had accrued was transferred to private debt collector AllianceOne Receivables Management Inc.

Lemmon is a Black middle-aged military veteran. He has a criminal record and lives with disabilities, surviving on Veterans Affairs and social security benefits. He works part-time low-wage jobs.

According to court filings, he has struggled to find stable housing since being released from incarceration, leading him to stay with family, friends, in shelters, in hotels, in a Veterans Affairs apartment, and in a Veterans Home.

Automatic fees and interest

Once AllianceOne took over his court debt, the company added a 23.4568 percent fee and began collecting interest annually, at a rate of 12 percent. Lemmon’s original debt, of $800, ballooned to over $2000 by 2021.

Lemmon is now leading a class action lawsuit to do away with Pierce County’s debt collection practices.

That lawsuit, filed in April 2021, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, asserts Pierce County’s court debt collection scheme is unconstitutional. The suit takes aim at how automatic fees and interest rates are added without regard to people’s ability to pay, disproportionately burdening poor people and communities of color.

In Washington, Black people per capita owe over three times as much as white people. White individuals owe $210 per 100,000 people, compared to $235 for Latinx people and $650 for Black people, according to court filings.

Ramifications of never-ending court debt

The use of private debt collectors means people who cannot afford to pay — whose debt is handed over to the companies — accrue more and more debt, prolonging their cases and involvement with the court system.

When debts aren’t paid, cases don’t get resolved and remain “active.” This makes it harder to get a job, secure public and private housing, and cuts off access to financial assistance through programs like Temporary Aid to Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

In Washington State, delinquent court debt can lead to license suspensions, wages being garnished, tax refunds getting intercepted, liens, and civil cases brought by private collection agencies.

Changes to Washington state fines and fees?

Legislation now active in the Washington State Legislature would address some of these issues.

House Bill 1412 passed the Washington State House of Representatives on February 10. It “would be significant relief for those [like Lemmon] who qualify as indigent to get their fines and fees waived/remitted,” according to Evan Walker, Policy Analyst for the Washington State Budget & Policy Center told WOHM.

The bill would eliminate the crime victim penalty assessment fee and the DNA database fee, and reduce courts’ reliance on fines and fees by providing funding directly from the state.

“Municipal courts in Washington have become too reliant on LFOs as a source of funding for daily court operations – activities that should be supported by broad, equitable, and dependable sources of revenue,” Walker writes in a new report. “In part,” he writes, “this is because the state government provides so few resources to local courts in Washington state. As of 2015, Washington ranked last in the nation in state funding for trial courts.”

House Bill 1412 would also provide relief for poor people, including by allowing courts to not impose criminal filing fees, and not impose or waive restitution and accrued interest. The bill makes it clear that people who show they can’t afford to pay debts can’t be sanctioned for not paying. It awaits passage in the Senate.

Another bill, House Bill 2050, would “reduce and cancel fines and fees (including interest) for parents of children who are in the criminal legal system. This would be retroactive cancellation,” Walker told WOHM. This bill also passed the House and is alive in the Senate.

Senate Bill 5592, which died in the Senate, would have eliminated post-incarceration supervision costs, according to Walker. 

National momentum

Reforms to the use of court fines and fees are spreading across the nation. In California, for example, a “Debt Free Justice California” coalition successfully pushed for the elimination of numerous court administrative fees and over $16.5 billion in unpaid fee debt in 2020 and 2021.

“In both red and blue states, momentum to eliminate fees and discharge debt is growing rapidly,” Jag Davies, communications director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, told WOHM. He continued, “Relying on fees to raise revenue is counterproductive economic policy that undermines public safety and harms our most vulnerable communities. Policymakers have much more equitable and efficient ways of raising revenue — and they’re beginning to understand that ending these hidden taxes is a win-win situation, both for struggling families and their jurisdiction’s bottom line.”

Washington State’s county and municipal courts impose over 100 different fines and fees, according to Walker’s report

Back to Pierce County

Along with the Superior Court’s contract with AllianceOne, the Pierce County District Court contracts with private debt collector Transworld, which similarly adds automatic fees and collects interest, regardless of people’s ability to pay.

The lawsuit led by Lemmon against Pierce County is still active and moving forward. Meanwhile, AllianceOne continues its efforts to collect on Lemmon’s delinquent debt.