Skip to main content

Could court fines and fees be keeping people homeless?

Published on July 11, 2019

Tents line a street in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood.
Tents line a street in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood. Image Credit: GeekWire Photo / John Cook

A new University of Washington School of Public Health study sustains a long-held argument that court-imposed fees and fines may keep the most vulnerable people ensnared in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration.

The researchers found that, among a group of adults experiencing homelessness in the Seattle area, people with outstanding legal debt spent two more years without stable housing than those without legal debt. The study was published June 4 in the Journal of Public Health.

People convicted of crimes who have served time on probation or in confinement typically incur some court costs and may have other legal financial obligations. These include fines, victim restitution and appointed attorney reimbursements, as well as fees for supervision and health care while in prison.

According to lead author Jessica Mogk, this is the first study to examine whether these legal fines could predict how long people experience homelessness.

Policies for legal financial obligations differ by state. In Washington state, the mandatory minimum court-imposed fine is $600. However, previous research led by Alexes Harris, a professor of sociology at the UW, found that the average was actually more than double the minimum, with substantial variation by county. Researchers explain that this debt can grow quickly due to high interest rates, annual collection charges and added fees from private collection agencies, and that many defendants struggle to pay it off.


Continue reading at UW School of Public Health.

Originally written by Ashlie Chandler for UW School of Public Health.
Search by categories

Twitter Feed