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Higher court fines imposed on Latino drug offenders in Washington state

Court fines issued to felons in Washington vary according to the criminal’s ethnicity and location. That’s the conclusion of a University of Washington study published online in American Sociological Review.

Alexes Harris, a UW assistant professor in sociology,  wanted to see if the fines and fees varied according to someone’s ethnicity or gender or by the type of offense or the county the crime was committed in.

She found  Latino drug offenders had it the worst.

“For some reason, Latinos in Washington state are receiving higher fines and fees than non-Latinos,” Harris said.

The study shows a Latino drug offender will pay 46.3 percent more than a non-Latino non-drug offender.

Harris says she’s doesn’t know why it’s happening, but has a theory.  She believes the rhetoric in the media about illegal immigration has prompted people to look at all Latinos with suspicion.

"We speculate that fines and fees might be used as an additional punishment to people that society deems as needing more sanction or more punishment,” she said.

Harris also found  fines and fees varied greatly by county.  Some of the largest counties,  including King and Pierce, had the lowest fees while smaller counties had some of the highest. 

In King County, a convicted felon's Legal Financial Obligation, or LFO as the fines and fees are called, averages $600.  By contrast, the average LFO in Garfield County is $5000. The interest on fees owed is 12%.

While some fees are standard and mandated by the state, such as $100 for a blood draw to get a DNA sample for a state database, other fines are set by counties or judges.

Critics of the high fees say they create a situation where, even after getting out of prison, a felon is unable to make ends meet and turn his life around.  Sometimes, Harris says, people are re-incarcerated for failing to pay the fines.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.