Taking steps to reform legal fines and fees

One very important area of criminal justice reform is in legal financial obligations, or LFOs: fines, fees, costs and restitution imposed by the court. A recent report found that “people of color in Seattle were consistently charged with more fines and fees per capita than White people, across all types of cases,” as this Bloomberg News article summarizes. Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) disproportionately bear the financial burden of traffic fines and fees, due to the nature of the tickets they were given.

SMC is committed to lessening the disparate impact that fines and fees have on people of color and people with little means to pay. This is why SMC judges voted this year to eliminate discretionary fees in criminal cases, such as the probation supervision fee. These discretionary fees were already frequently waived, and eliminating the fees altogether is a further statement that the court does not believe in charging people for court-imposed supervision.

We are proud of this step forward, but there is more work to do, since criminal fees are not as large a driver of inequity as infractions. Infractions often carry automatic fines that the court cannot waive. In addition to the financial burden, failure to pay can result in a suspended driver’s license, which can then lead to a criminal charge of Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree (DWLS3).

Seattle has been recognized for creating accessible and affordable pathways for residents who have DWLS3 charges and suspended licenses to repay fines associated with minor traffic infractions through the LELO Relicensing Program. Seattle and King County are also currently participating in the national Fine and Fee Reform Network coordinated by PolicyLink. 

SMC helped create and continues to participate in a countywide relicensing program that allows drivers to get their license by setting up a single time payment plan for their suspending tickets at all King County courts. We also work directly with people whose unpaid tickets have caused license suspension by recalling their tickets from collections and setting them up on time payment or community service hour plans, as eligible. Recalling tickets from collections removes collections fees and interest.

We will continue to work towards making infraction fines and fees more equitable. In 2021, we aim to launch a (likely virtual) relicensing calendar, where certain tickets and fines can be recalled, adjudicated and reduced by a judicial officer so that an individual is able to get their driver’s license back. Losing a driver’s license as a result of unpaid tickets is a huge burden, so we look forward to making our relicensing services more accessible in the new year.

If you’re struggling with unpaid Seattle tickets, please call our customer service team at (206) 684-5600 to learn about your options.