Court fines and fees that impose a crushing burden on low-income people can be substantially reduced without any loss of revenue to municipalities or counties, a study of San Francisco reforms has found.
The study, an assessment by the Financial Justice Project, an initiative launched by the Office of the San Francisco Treasurer in November 2016 to examine the effects of court-issued fees, fines, and penalties on the county’s roughly 900,000 residents, concluded that paying attention to individuals’ ability to pay not only improved fairness in the justice system—but also generated revenue that would otherwise have remained uncollected.
“Fines and fees that exceed people’s ability to pay them are often a lose-lose for people and government,” the study said. “Better solutions exist that hold people accountable, but do not put people in financial distress.”
The authors of the study said the lessons of the San Francisco project were especially critical as local governments grappled with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, warning that any attempt to balance budgets “on the backs of those who can least afford it” would have severe consequences—and would likely be unsuccessful.
San Francisco was the first jurisdiction to mount a systematic reform of financial practices that have been used by local governments across the nation to boost cash-strapped budgets, particularly after the 2008 financial meltdown.
Fees and financial penalties were imposed for a variety of offenses, ranging from motor vehicle violations to fees related to court monitoring, and individuals unable to pay them were hit with further penalties or in some cases faced imprisonment in what experts called a form of “cash register justice” that disproportionately burdened communities of color.
An investigation by the Department of Justice following the unrest in Ferguson, Mo, over the officer-involved killing of Michael Brown in 2014 pinpointed the onerous fees and penalties imposed by the municipal court as a source of the African-American community’s long-simmering anger towards police and other authorities. One resident, for example, spent 30 days in jail for failing to pay a 15-year-old traffic ticket.
In 2013, such fines were Ferguson’s second largest source of income.
A subsequent California study, Not Just a Ferguson Problem, found that, as of 2015, more than four million California residents had suspended driver’s licenses due to their inability to pay traffic tickets. Additionally, a 2019 report by the Brennan Center for Justice found that excessive fees and fines faced by individuals after release from incarceration impeded successful reentry.
In the past several years, criminologists, academics and advocates have joined in developing strategies for ending the modern-day version of debtor’s prisons, but it has also fueled heated resistance in many states where such fees are considered a useful deterrence to lawbreaking as well as a source of income.
The Financial Justice Project found that in San Francisco, the cycle of spiraling penalties and fines trap individuals who are already poor “in a maze of poverty and punishment.”
The authors noted that lawmakers and judges are often unaware of the severe consequences of their penalties. The Department of Justice and the California study reached similar conclusions.
Managers of the San Francisco project worked with more than ten city and county departments to repeal all locally controlled fees charged to people leaving jail, as well as a range of other costs such as fees for jailhouse phone calls. Low-income individuals were allowed to set a schedule for paying off motor vehicle tickets, and in some cases to erase their debt through community service.
In August 2018, courts waived over $30 million in debt from 21,000 San Franciscans that resulted from criminal justice administrative fees.
Importantly, these much-needed reforms did not necessarily equate to a loss of revenue for the city or county of San Francisco. Instead, the Project found that tailoring penalties to a person’s financial situation made payment more likely.
This, in turn, helped to “ultimately stabilize, and even improve revenue,” concluded authors Anne Stuhldreher and Christa Brown.
The authors cited two findings as evidence for this conclusion.
First, after the San Francisco Superior Court stopped suspending driver’s licenses for failing to pay fines, the court’s revenue per citation increased.
Second, after the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency established a payment plan option for low-income offenders, enrollment in the plans increased by 300 percent in the first 90 days, and revenue increased along with that.
Advice for Others
The report encouraged other cities and counties in California and elsewhere to follow suit with their own strategies for ending or rethinking fines and fees. They added that regardless of the strategy chosen, authorities should keep in mind four basic operating principles:
- Engage community organizations, court and government officials, and other stakeholders throughout the reform process;
- Review the fees and fines in the jurisdiction of interest, clarify guiding principles, and know which government departments control which fees and fines;
- Craft a clear reform agenda;
- Work with courts and other government departments to implement approved reforms and help low-income people take advantage of those reforms.
The study said the current national health emergency made such reforms even more crucial, noting, for instance, that 46 percent of families in San Francisco were “economically insecure.”
“We know that the layoffs, wage cuts and health issues stemming from the pandemic will hit families that were already struggling hardest,” the authors wrote.
In response, city departments were already taking steps to “ensure that fines and fees are not an additional barrier to people’s basic needs throughout this emergency.”
The authors added, “In crises like this, these reforms are more important than ever.”
The report’s authors are Anne Stuhldreher and Christa Brown, director and manager of the Financial Justice Project, respectively.
Editor’s Note: For additional information on the impact of fines and fees around the country and strategies underway to reform the practice, please see The Crime Report’s resource page on “Cash Register Justice.”
The full report can be accessed here.
This summary was prepared by TCR News Intern Michael Gelb.