San Francisco could be a model for nationwide efforts to eliminate court costs and fees for individuals trapped in the justice system’s machinery, according to the director of the city’s Financial Justice Project.
“We’re changing the culture,” said Anne Stuhldreher. “Hopefully, other counties will start to do it, and we can push for state-wide change, and maybe other states will follow.”
Under an order issued last August by the San Francisco Superior Court, San Francisco County forgave $32.7 million dollars of debt incurred from administrative costs assessed against some 21,000 defendants, as a result of the task force investigation.
“We should be actively helping people to get their lives back on track after they have paid their debt to society,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said at the time. “Garnishing the wages of people facing the challenging task of securing employment and housing can make that impossible.”
One defendant for example found that he owed nearly $3,000 even after serving a sentence on a felony charge. His bill included a $135 booking fee, a $240 restitution fine, and $1,800 in probation costs.
Speakers at a John Jay College panel last week hailed San Francisco’s policy change, but said it was only a start at ending a system that leaves millions of Americans in debt–and in some cases sends them behind bars–because they cannot afford court costs assessed for even relatively minor violations.
“What they’re doing in San Francisco is extraordinary,” said Jon Wool of the Vera Institute of Justice. “We want one of those.”
Last year, New Orleans became the first Southern state to eliminate all court fees for juvenile offenders, but Wool said much more needed to be done.
Advocates say court fines and fees place a heavy burden on mostly low-income, disproportionately minority families that are already struggling to provide for their children. They also point to academic research finding that imposing court fees increases the odds that a defendant will be accused of more crimes in the future.
But Wool argues fines and fees need to be eliminated all together.
“We just have to stop all together,” he told the panel. “Anyone who wants to go for anything less than all, is fine. But we should imagine a world where we don’t tax the most vulnerable members of our community.”
He also noted important fiscal reasons to end fines and fees. For example, in New Orleans, the city loses $2 million annually trying to re-collect funds from poor people who can’t pay, he said.
Beth Colgan, at the UCLA School of Law, and Brook Hopkins, the executive director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Policy Program, said other nations had gone much further in devising alternatives.
In Germany, and other parts of Europe and Latin America, citizens pay fines and fees based on their level of income and the severity of the crime they committed.
The approach, called the “day fine’ structure, has been praised by experts for its versatility.
Hopkins explained the day fine structure as the following: You calculate the culpability level of the crime (a sentencing grid and figure out how many units each charge is worth) and then separately make the decision about a persons net income. The way the day amount is calculated varies.
Then the judge asks the person what his or her income is. Generally no written proof is necessary.
When asked how individuals can be trusted to provide the correct net income, Hopkins contended that judges just have to “take their word for it.”
“If we focus too much on getting the perfect amount for each defendant, then we can’t administer it.”
This report was prepared by TCR senior staff writer Megan Hadley.