Court fees trap ex-inmates in a prison of debt

In Washington state, formerly incarcerated men and women face massive debts and a 12 percent interest rate.

Feature E. Tammy Kim
Al Jazeera America
August 5, 2015

Tags: Court Debt, Legal Financial Obligations

Organizations mentioned/involved: Brennan Center for Justice, Center for Justice (WA)


In Washington, a state whose progressive reputation masks a tough-on-crime undercurrent, defendants and prisoners are charged “user fees” that fund the state and local systems designed to put them away. Those who do not or cannot pay are at risk of arrest and reimprisonment. It’s a national trend: In nearly every state, offenders pay for court costs, representation by a public defender, jail and probation, and fees are on the rise. The county clerk’s offices that depend most on these sums routinely refer to defendants as “customers”.


Criticism of criminal justice fees has grown in recent years, particularly since the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer drew attention to Ferguson, Missouri, a city notorious for extracting money from low-income defendants of color. The National Association for Public Defense has observed that a small infraction can become “a life-changing struggle to satisfy ever-mounting debt. … Its effect can be generational and condemns the poorest communities to persistent poverty.”

Studies from professors at the University of Washington, the ACLU of Washington, and the Brennan Center for Justice show that these debts prevent former misdemeanants and felons from escaping poverty and moving on with their lives, not only because of what’s owed but also because of the accompanying stress and surveillance.