Soapbox

San Francisco just got rid of unfair criminal justice fees. Other counties should do the same.

Architect Deanna VanBuren, right, helps inmates at a design workshop in San Francisco’s County Jail No. 5. The Board of Supervisors recently ended administrative fees that often burden jail inmates after their release.
Architect Deanna VanBuren, right, helps inmates at a design workshop in San Francisco’s County Jail No. 5. The Board of Supervisors recently ended administrative fees that often burden jail inmates after their release. Los Angeles Times/MCT

San Francisco resident Mary Vandigriff remembers when her life fell apart at age 19 and she began a 20-year struggle with addiction and cycling in and out of jail.

Since Vandigriff last left jail in March 2017, she got a job at a San Francisco nonprofit, got clean and is repairing her relationships with her kids. But she still struggles, particularly with the thousands of dollars in administrative fees she owes from her time in the criminal justice system.

 
Opinion

In San Francisco, people can be charged a $50 monthly probation fee; $1,800 is typically charged up front since probation usually lasts for three years. They can be charged as much as $35 a day for an electronic ankle monitor, and other fees to pay for reports, collection costs or tests. These fees exist in every California county, and are among the highest in the country.

This month, Vandigriff’s debt went down, and her chances went up. Thanks to an ordinance passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco will become the first county in the nation to eliminate all local criminal justice administrative fees. Local and state policymakers should do the same after they take a hard look at these fees, which are high pain for people, but low gain for government.

Anne Struhldreher new

These fees are assessed on individuals who have already served time in jail, paid other fines or are paying victim restitution. They are supposed to cover costs, not create more punishment.

But that’s exactly what they do. When someone gets out of jail, they often need to find a job, a place to live and a way to support their family. Every dollar in fees they owe is an additional barrier. They can also lead to more repeat crimes. Since the fees are often collected through wage garnishment and bank account levies, they can drive people to underground economies, which can lead them back to jail.

That’s why the San Francisco sheriff, district attorney and adult probation chief were strong supporters of the new ordinance.

Finally, the fees are an anemic and counterproductive source of revenue. The average collection rate for the fees eliminated in San Francisco is 17 percent, failing to bring in enough revenue to cover costs.

In San Francisco, about 20,000 people owe $15 million from these fees over the past six years. The ordinance calls for wiping out this debt. But hundreds of thousands of Californians still owe these fees, an average of $3,600 for the three most common probation fees, according to a new study to be released by the Western Center on Law and Poverty. This debt disproportionately burdens people of color because they’re disproportionately the ones in county jails.

Momentum for reform is building across the state. Community advocates and government leaders are exploring eliminating the fees in Alameda County. Probation chiefs across California have called for similar changes. And community and government leaders are meeting in San Francisco on June 26 to discuss what needs to happen at the state level.

Let’s make sure all Californians have the same chance to succeed. It’s time to search for more just and sustainable ways to fund our courts and criminal justice system.

Anne Stuhldreher directs The Financial Justice Project in the treasurer’s office for the City and County of San Francisco. She can be contacted at anne.stuhldreher@sfgov.org.

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