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Supervisors President London Breed joins city leaders in announcing first-in-the-nation legislation eliminating criminal justice fees in San Francisco

February 6, 2018

by Samantha Roxas

Board of Supervisors President London Breed welcomes a standing-room-only crowd to City Hall to celebrate Black History Month on Feb. 2, 2018. – Photo: Johnnie Burrell

San Francisco – President London Breed today joined City leaders and community advocates in announcing groundbreaking legislation that will eliminate all existing criminal justice fees within the City and County of San Francisco’s jurisdiction. This includes fees related to adult probation, home detention, alcohol testing and others which are ​levied on individuals coming into and out of the City’s criminal justice system.

These criminal justice fees can trap an already vulnerable population in a cycle of debt and poverty, with poor people of color often hit the hardest, and come at time when formerly incarcerated individuals are working to turn their lives around after having served their time. “A 2015 report by the Ella Baker Center, a Bay Area nonprofit group focused on civil rights, found the average defendant incurred $13,607 in court-related fines and fees, including restitution and attorney costs,” the Chronicle reports.

These fees not only create barriers to reentry for people who are exiting the criminal justice system but are an inefficient source of revenue for the City and are costly to administer. Collection rates for court-ordered fees are extremely low, indicating that many are unable to pay, even years after being charged. For example, only 9 percent of all adult probation fees were collected in 2016, and the average collection rate for all court-ordered criminal fees between 2012 and 2016 was 17 percent.

“A 2015 report by the Ella Baker Center, a Bay Area nonprofit group focused on civil rights, found the average defendant incurred $13,607 in court-related fines and fees, including restitution and attorney costs,” the Chronicle reports.

“These fees are counterproductive and a problematic source of revenue for the City,” said President London Breed. “By eliminating these fees, we’re giving our reentry population a fighting chance to turn their lives around and to become thriving members of society. At a time when our City is grappling with record-breaking income disparity and severe homelessness and affordability challenges, the benefits of removing these fees far outweigh the costs of administering them.”

“Charging fees to people who are exiting the criminal justice system is a lose-lose for government and for the people we serve. I launched the nation’s first ​Financial Justice Project​ because I believe we can right-size fines and fees so they don’t disproportionately impact poor people and people of color, while protecting our City’s financial health,” said Treasurer José Cisneros. “I applaud President Breed for working with us to stop​ balancing our books on the backs of very poor people.​”

“These fees are counterproductive and a problematic source of revenue for the City,” said President London Breed. “By eliminating these fees, we’re giving our reentry population a fighting chance to turn their lives around and to become thriving members of society.”

Left unpaid, these criminal justice fees can grow in size, resulting in wage garnishment of over half of an individual’s monthly income and levies on their bank accounts. One study found that family members often pay the fines and fees on behalf of their loved ones, and over 20 percent of families had to take out a loan to cover the costs of these fines and fees.

“Fees in a criminal case are the equivalent of payday loans, where they tell you that if you plead guilty, you’ll be let out of jail, but then they tack on over 50 fees that will keep you buried in debt forever,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi, a proponent of the legislation. “We see our clients and their families struggling for years to pay these substantial fees, drowning in debt instead of moving on with their futures. People of color are disproportionately affected.”

In San Francisco, the burden of these fines and fees falls heaviest on the African-American community, which accounts for less than 6 percent of the population, but makes up over half the population in the county jail.

“Fees in a criminal case are the equivalent of payday loans, where they tell you that if you plead guilty, you’ll be let out of jail, but then they tack on over 50 fees that will keep you buried in debt forever,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi, a proponent of the legislation.

“It’s an equity issue”, said Human Rights Commission Director Sheryl Davis. “This is an example of how governments can address policies that foster inequity and put people first.”

Fees that will be eliminated under this ordinance include:

  • Adult probation fees: Approximately $1,800 up front
  • Electronic monitoring fees: $125 sign-up fee plus $25 per day
  • Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program: $100 sign-up fee plus $20 per day
  • Booking fee: $135
  • Pre-sentence report fee: $150

The legislation will be introduced at the Board of Supervisors Feb. 6 and is expected to be heard at committee in March 2018.

Samantha Roxas can be reached at samantha.roxas@sfgov.org. Bay View staff contributed to this report.

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