Judge Linda Coburn (The Judge Coburn Committee)

Judge Linda Coburn (The Judge Coburn Committee)

Could a calculator make criminal justice more equitable?

Court fees can follow convicts for life. An Edmonds judge has an idea that could make them more fair.

EDMONDS — When they’re getting sentenced, people tend to think about the time they’ll spend behind bars, not the required payments that can follow them the rest of their lives.

Most people convicted of crimes are saddled with a series of fees that help fund the criminal justice system. The payments go toward services like booking, crime lab analysis, supervision and DNA tests — even the cost of incarceration can be tallied. Restitution is also lumped into the bill.

The money, typically totaling hundreds of dollars, can sometimes seem trivial compared to harsher punishments. But there can be disproportionate impacts. People of color are often burdened with more fines, while those living in poverty can be stuck paying them forever, according to research.

Edmonds Municipal Court Judge Linda Coburn thinks she has a way to bring some equity to the equation: A calculator.

Not the handheld kind that judges sometimes tap on while figuring out the fees. This one is online, and is designed specifically for finding the right dollar amount that needs to be paid for each case. Users enter the crime (or crimes), confirm if the defendant can pay anything and then check boxes for the appropriate fines.

The program was developed by Microsoft in partnership with the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission, which Coburn is part of. It was funded by a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Coburn said the calculator can bring clarity and uniformity to the way judges decide sentences. She introduced it at a professional symposium held in December about court-imposed payments.

At the symposium, University of Washington professor Alexes Harris explained how the fees create a “two-tiered system” in criminal justice. While wealthy people can make the payments and move on with their lives, those without the means to do so often have a different story. In a report called “Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons,” the ACLU says these people can “face a demoralizing cycle of court hearings, contempt charges and arrest warrants.”

That’s due, in part, to exorbitant interest rates. Up until last year, the state required interest to be set at 12 percent, making it so many people could never pay off their financial obligations. The Legislature passed a bill last year to do away with that rate for new cases, but that doesn’t apply to people who already have been convicted.

There’s also racial disparity, Harris said. For example, African-Americans currently owe three times as much as white people in outstanding court-imposed payments, which total $2.5 billion in Washington state, she said. Because judges have sole discretion over assigning fees, they may be subject to biases unrelated to specific cases, Harris describes in her research. That could include racial prejudice, whether purposeful or not.

Coburn has been working on the issue since she took the bench in 2016. Up to that point, she had been a public defender, and going through the process of deciding fees and fines was a little too mysterious to her, she said.

“People would walk out and they would not really understand,” she said. “The attorney would not really understand. The judge would not really understand.”

As a result, she said, she has likely allowed some clients to become mired in never-ending bills and ever-growing interest, without realizing.

“I have no doubt,” she said.

She made understanding the issue a priority when she became a judge. She used a spreadsheet to categorize crimes and the different fines that go along with them. It served as a prototype for the calculator developed by Microsoft.

Coburn sees the calculator as an educational tool that can stop judges from making mistakes. And considering how much there is to remember and how often the laws surrounding the fines are changing, mistakes happen, Coburn said.

She’s no exception. In a reckless driving case, she almost assigned a fee that she wasn’t allowed to by law. The program caught her.

“This is a judge who has read a lot about (court-imposed payments), and yet I had to be reminded, because it’s complex and a lot is going on in court,” she said.

Snohomish County public defender Kathleen Kyle, a big proponent of court fee reform, was unsure about the calculator. She doesn’t think it addresses the basic issues of people’s ability, or inability, to pay. Moreover, she said attorneys and judges should always be having meaningful conversations about court bills. She wondered if the tool would take away from those discussions.

“Criminal justice is not a math problem,” she said.

The calculator is just one step, Coburn said. Last year, the Legislature took a couple more by enacting several reforms with House Bill 1783. In addition to doing away with the 12 percent interest rate, the law prevents jailing people for being unable to pay, permits some to do community service instead, allows judges to waive more fees than before and places more importance on restitution to victims.

Those reforms don’t go far enough, Kyle said. She argues that the 12 percent interest should be thrown out for everybody.

If lawmakers truly want to fix the system, they will need to address how courts make money, Harris said at the symposium. In a 2016 report to the Legislature, the Association of County Clerks said state funding for criminal justice has dropped 49 percent since 2003, while revenue from court-imposed payments has increased by 66 percent. The group said up to $30 million is collected from convicts per year.

That sounds like a lot, Harris says in her research, but that doesn’t account for how much is spent collecting it.

Even if the fees were a reliable source of income, she writes, it directly opposes the goal of reintegrating people into society after they serve their sentences.

“Although criminal wrongdoers should pay their debt to society,” Harris writes, “they should not be asked to pay again and again, or in a way that dooms them to a perpetual state of poverty and instability.”

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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The Daily Herald is interested in talking to people whose lives have been affected by court fines. Share your story by contacting 425-339-3431 or zbryan@heraldnet.com. Coverage must include full names, not anonymous sources.

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