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Seattle Municipal Court Releases Analysis of Disproportionality in Assessed Fines and Fees

In March 2023, the Seattle Municipal Court (SMC or Court) completed a research report entitled, Analysis of Seattle Municipal Court Imposed Criminal Fines and Fees.” The report is in response to a Seattle City Council Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) SMC-001-A-002 and a recommendation in a Seattle City Auditor 2021 Report. The Court reviewed imposed criminal fines and fees and assessed whether payments owed disproportionately impacted individuals by race and ethnicity. 

The Court analyzed the Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs), or monetary sanctions imposed upon resolution of a criminal case, for cases resolved during the five-year period January 1, 2017 to December 31, 2021. Some LFOs are routinely waived by SMC judges due to indigency (when it is determined an individual lacks resources to pay) and others are deemed mandatory in the authorizing legislation (e.g., Revised Code of Washington or Seattle Municipal Code) and may not be waived. Of note, in September 2020, SMC judges voted unanimously to permanently eliminate all discretionary fines and fees.  

Key findings in the Court’s analysis: 

  • SMC judges have been consistently imposing less LFOs year-after-year and this study shows a significant decrease in the number of LFOs imposed on SMC criminal cases since the Court’s previous analysis in a 2017 report
  • The Court is not only imposing a significantly smaller number of monetary sanctions overall, but the amounts that are imposed are much lower than they have been in the past. Comparing two five-year periods, 2012 – 2016 with 2017 – 2021, the number of LFOs ordered fell 69% and the dollar amount imposed fell 71%.  
  • In the five-year period 2017 – 2021, a disproportional 31 percent of criminal cases filed by the Seattle City Attorney were against Black individuals (U.S. Census data shows a Black or African American population in Seattle at just over 7%). 
  • In the five-year period 2017 – 2021, SMC judges waived or canceled 45% of the total imposed LFO amount. Of the remaining 55%, the race proportion of the payable LFO amount was Asian/Pacific Islander 9%, Black 12%, Native American/Alaska Native 1%, White 69%, and Not Identified/Unknown 8%.  
  • In the five-year period 2017 – 2021, Black individuals have significantly less cases disposed in the DUI category, which have higher LFO amounts imposed compared to cases from the Domestic Violence (DV) and Other (non-DUI/DV) categories. This is one factor contributing to a lower imposed LFO amount attributable to Black individuals. 
  • Operational impacts and changes to the Court and the misdemeanant criminal justice system related to the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the decline in number of ordered LFOs and the dollar amount imposed in 2020 – 2021. 
  • From 2015 – 2019, just prior to COVID-19, the number of disposed cases with LFOs fell 20%, the number of LFOs imposed fell 23%, the total LFO dollar amount imposed fell 33%. 
  • From 2015 – 2019, just prior to COVID-19, while 6% more cases were filed by the City against Black individuals, the number of cases with LFOs imposed by SMC fell 20%, 25% fewer LFOs were imposed, and the overall imposed LFO amount was 42% less. 

SMC acknowledges that there is growing momentum to review how LFOs are used throughout the criminal justice system, how they intersect with race and social justice issues, poverty, reentry opportunities, and equitable administration of justice. Several recent studies are included in the report’s Appendix. The full report is available here: