California plans to write off an estimated $534 million in fines and fees that have accrued to justice-involved individuals in the state.
A landmark bill signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week will eliminate 17 fees charged to individuals involved in the state’s criminal justice system, lifting an estimated $534 million in debt―ranging from overdue court fees to unpaid traffic fines.
“We know from our work to abolish and eliminate debt from locally controlled criminal administrative fees in San Francisco that these fees heap debt onto people on top of their punishment and create huge barriers to their re-entry,” said Debt Free Justice California, a coalition of 50 state organizations, in a statement welcoming the bill.
“Fees are a terrible source of revenue. They’re charged to very low-income people who cannot pay them.”
The bill is modeled in part on a measure launched in San Francisco in 2016 by San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project (FJP).
Five years after its launch, the measure has provided debt relief to 21,000 San Francisco residents, lifted 88,000 holds on driver’s licenses and reconnected 17,000 people to public libraries, according to a recent FJP report.
The project, aimed at reducing the burden of fines and fees on San Francisco’s low income communities of color, enabled them to waive $32 million in debts.
“Municipal fines and fees, particularly stemming from the criminal justice system and traffic enforcement, do not take into consideration someone’s ability to pay,” reported the FJP in its first major assessment of the project.
“This has created) significant burdens for San Franciscans with low incomes on top of the city’s already high cost of living.”
The San Francisco measure, first in the country to end the burden of administrative fees in the justice system, has “galvanized a national movement,” Debt Free Justice said in a news release last year.
The movement has picked up traction since then.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg raised more than $16 million to pay the court fines and fees of 32,000 formerly incarcerated Floridians so that they could vote in the November 2020 election.
“For too long, we have watched our clients and their families struggle with debt that they are unable to pay,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju.
“For justice-involved people who already have the cards stacked against them in so many ways, financial penalties create an even higher barrier to their future success.
“I am very glad to see California now leading the country in this area. It’s now time for other states to follow suit. When we eliminate fees and debts, we are paving the way to more resilient communities.”
The FJP report cited Urban Institute figures showing that 47 percent of San Franciscans are financially insecure as the city’s cost of living continues to rise.
Fines, fees and debt — particularly those connected to the criminal justice system and traffic enforcement — further disadvantage low-income San Franciscans, since these fines don’t take into consideration someone’s ability to pay.
“Fines and fees — often via suspended drivers’ licenses and impounded vehicles — can worsen household debt, damage credit scores, and make it difficult for residents with low incomes to access work, school, and healthcare,” says the FJP.
Not only do fines and fees undermine the upward mobility of low-income residents — they disproportionately impact communities of color. Although Black residents comprise less than 6 percent of San Francisco’s population, they made up nearly 45 percent of people arrested for failure to appear or failure to pay traffic court warrants in recent years.
In an effort to remedy these racial and economic disparities, San Francisco Treasurer José Cisneros and Director Anne Stuhldreher launched the FJP with a plan to work “with departments across local government to eliminate or find alternatives to fines and fees that disproportionately impact San Franciscans with low incomes.”
By maintaining close partnerships with community organizations that assist low income people of color in San Francisco, FJP has identified “significant fine and fee ‘pain points’ and prioritized the highest-impact reforms.”
FJP has also worked with the San Francisco Mayor’s Budget Office and local government departments to collect fines and fees data, creative inventories of fines and fees utilized across departments and identify the bills that most negatively affect San Franciscans with low incomes and communities of color.
Most importantly, FJP identifies alternative solutions to fines and fees, which encompass three categories: basing the fine or fee on ability to pay, eliminating the fine or fee and identifying an alternative method to achieving the policy goal or offering non-monetary alternatives to payment.
As a result of these efforts, San Francisco has seen a slate of improvements.
The project also worked with San Francisco Mayor London Breed to end driver’s license suspensions for missing court dates, a development that lifted thousands of holds on licenses.
“Ability to pay” reforms, payment plans and alternative payment plans have also resulted from FJP’s efforts. Payment plans have aided low income people in paying their parking tickets and fare evasion citations, created discounts on towing and booting fines and fees and made bus fares free for people experiencing homelessness.
Other accomplishments include making jail phone calls free and waiving debt from overdue library fines. As for the project’s success, the authors of the report cite a “deep and continuous collaboration with community-based partners.”
“One-on-one engagement, robust listening sessions, and ongoing partnerships with community organizations and leaders have enabled FJP to serve as an effective bridge between community actors and local government entities and ensure that community concerns are heard,” the report reads.
For additional information and resources, see the John Jay “Cash Register Justice” conference and source page.
TCR writer Eva Herscowitz contributed to this report.