This month, Seattle Municipal Court judges voted to eliminate all discretionary fines and fees imposed in criminal cases, representing one step in a court-wide commitment to lessen barriers and increase equity in the legal system.
“At a time when people are struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and recognizing that people of color and people with low incomes are weighed down by the burden of having these fees placed on them, eliminating these fees is the right thing to do,” said Presiding Judge Willie Gregory. “By eliminating all fees not mandated by state statute, we hope to lessen barriers to success for the people who come before us.”
The Seattle Municipal Court’s judges voted unanimously to permanently eliminate the probation supervision fee, records check fee, work crew fee, and community service setup fee, totaling an average of $268,000 annually to the City’s General Fund. Probation and records check fees most often amount to $600 and $240 fees per person. These changes are expected to benefit over 1,000 individuals per year. This is effective September 16, 2020.
Seattle Municipal Court judges have waived these fees in the majority of cases where it has been determined that individuals do not have the means to pay them. The decision to eliminate the fees for all individuals is a further statement that the court does not believe in charging people for court-imposed supervision.
Over the past decade, there have been increasing calls to end criminal justice-related monetary sanctions and the practice of charging individuals for the cost of court-imposed services such as supervision. In early 2020, Seattle Municipal Court, in partnership with a number of local government agencies and community groups, was awarded a national Policylink grant to engage in local criminal justice fine and fee reform.
Additionally, as a member of EXiT: Executives Transforming Probation and Parole, eliminating these fees at Seattle Municipal Court aligns with the organization’s call to eliminate supervision fees. With this decision, Seattle joins jurisdictions across the nation moving to eliminate supervision fees, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Ramsey County, MN. As Seattle Municipal Court works to evolve its probation services, ending supervision fees is an important step to lessen barriers to success for clients.
A recent report, commissioned by the Seattle Office of Civil Rights, details the disproportionate impact of legal financial obligations on people of color in Seattle. Seattle Municipal Court judges are committed to eliminating these disparate outcomes for court clients to the extent of their power, and to working with stakeholders to achieve system-wide legal financial obligation reform. Elimination of local discretionary fines and fees is an important step in this effort.