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SF officials look to cut criminal justice fees

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Board of Supervisors President London Breed. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Board of Supervisors President London Breed. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed and other officials are working to eliminate criminal justice fees in the city, which can cost people hundreds of dollars.

The fees, which defendants often pay for things like adult probation, home detention, and alcohol testing, help keep people mired in poverty, and "come at a time when formerly incarcerated individuals are working to turn their lives around after having served their time," a news release from Breed's office said.

"These fees are counterproductive and a problematic source of revenue for the city," stated Breed, who represents District 5 on the board.

Legislation that would eliminate all the existing criminal justice fees within the city's jurisdiction was introduced February 6 and is expected to be heard at committee in March. The proposal is believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

According to Breed's office, data indicate that many people can't pay the fees. In 2016, for example, just 9 percent of all adult probation fees were collected. From 2012 to 2016, the average rate of collection for all court-ordered criminal fees was 17 percent.

Fees for adult probation are about $1,800 up front and the cost for getting booked is $135, just to give a couple examples of what people's expenses are.

"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," said Breed. "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."

When they're not paid, the fees can grow, which results in heavy wage garnishments and levies on bank accounts.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi stated, "Fees in a criminal case are the equivalent of payday loans, where they tell you that if you plead guilty, you'll get out of jail, but then the tack on over 50 fees that will keep you buried in debt forever. 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."

Treasurer Jose Cisneros talked about his efforts to help city residents who are poor and how the fees can undercut that work.

"Charging fees to people who are exiting the criminal justice system is a lose-lose for government and for the people we serve," said Cisneros, a gay man. "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."

Breed's office said that less than 6 percent of San Francisco's population is African-American, yet more than half of the people in county jail are African-American, so "the burden of these fines and fees falls heaviest on the African-American community."

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

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