By Anne Stuhldreher
Thirty-three year old Jessica Salazar was making good progress. After she got out of jail in San Francisco in 2016, she went to treatment for her addiction and reconnected with her seven-year old daughter.
She was overwhelmed, though, by $3,000 in fines and fees related to her time in jail. Jessica’s bill included more than $2,300 in administrative fees, including $1,800 to pay for three years of monthly probation fees, which are billed up front. The fees are a big psychological and financial burden, she told .
Thanks to action taken by the San Francisco Superior Court and city leaders, Salazar’s debt was cut down to $700. Last week, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that the San Francisco court had eliminated $32.7 million in debt from these local fees for 21,000 people, including Salazar.
Salazar was relieved. “This is something I still have to stress over, but I can work with,” she said. For thousands of people who are struggling, like Salazar, Mayor Breed’s announcement not only cut down their debt- the action increased their chances of success.
The Court’s action followed the authored by London Breed when she was President of The Board of Supervisors. In July, when the legislation became law, San Francisco became the first county in the nation to eliminate all local criminal justice administrative fees.
San Francisco community and city leaders came together to address a problem many people don’t understand – when people are released from jail or exit the criminal justice system, they are charged thousands of dollars in administrative fees. These administrative fees are charged in addition to other consequences people face, such as time in jail, punitive fines, and victim restitution. The fees, however, are only meant to recoup costs for government and the courts; they are not meant to be punitive. But the reality is different. These fees are charged to very low-income people who cannot afford to pay them and can lead to wage garnishment and bank account levies. Research shows they can drive people into underground economies, make it harder for people to successfully reenter their community, and increase recidivism rates.
Criminal justice fees also disproportionately impact people of color. African-Americans make up less than six percent of the San Francisco population, but more than half of people in the San Francisco jails. (To see a sample bill of fees regularly charged by the city, click here)
Furthermore, these fees are not an efficient way to cover costs. The collection rate for the monthly probation fee, the largest fee that was eliminated, was nine percent in 2016. “Charging very poor people fees to cover the City’s administrative costs makes no fiscal sense. These 21,000 people have already paid their debt to society, and by lifting this $32 million in debt, we are providing vulnerable communities with a real second chance,” said Treasurer José Cisneros, who is in charge of revenue collection for the City and County.
As Mayor Breed said: “These reforms started in San Francisco, but they won’t end here.” Alameda County, across the bay from San Francisco, is holding a hearing on similar legislation on October 23. And a California-wide coalition has formed to push for statewide reforms.
Anne Stuhldreher directs the the in the office of The San Francisco Treasurer. San Francisco is the first city in the nation to launch a Financial Justice Project to assess and reform how fees and fines impact low-income people and people of color.