Court-imposed fines as a feature of the homelessness-incarceration nexus: a cross-sectional study of the relationship between legal debt and duration of homelessness in Seattle, Washington, USA [2019]

Legal system involvement is a policy-driven risk factor for homelessness. Legal financial obligations (LFOs), such as court fees, fines and restitution, can endanger the financial security of those ensnared in the criminal justice system. In this study we measured the effect of incarceration and LFOs on duration of homelessness in Seattle, WA, USA.

To analyze the relationship between incarceration, debt and duration of homelessness, we interviewed 101 adults experiencing homelessness and living in city-sanctioned encampments and tiny house villages in Seattle, WA in 2017–18. We collected personal housing history, presence and amount of debt, and measures of legal system involvement.

Our respondents experienced homelessness an average of 41 months during the current episode. Nearly two-thirds reported being convicted of a crime, and 78% had been incarcerated. More than 25% reported owing current legal fines. Individuals with legal fine debt experienced 22.9 months of additional homelessness after considering the effects of race, age, and gender.

We confirmed a strong association between homelessness and legal trouble. Among high-income countries, the USA has the highest rates of legal system involvement and the highest rates of homelessness; the relationship between the two may be connected.

Jessica Mogk, Valerie Shmigol, Marvin Futrell, Bert Stover, Amy Hagopian
Journal of Public Health, Volume 42, Issue 2, June 2020