A year after California became the first state to eliminate dozens of criminal justice fees that fall hardest on low-income communities and people of color, pending state legislation would push those reforms even further — ending the $300 charge for failing to appear in court and other costs associated with criminal charges and traffic citations.
Senate Bill 586 — which would do away with another 26 court-ordered fines and fees — faces a key test Thursday in the Assembly’s appropriations committee.
Although the revenue funds programs such as victim restitution and drug testing and treatment, numerous reports and newspaper coverage have documented the burden fines and fees place on struggling communities. In its 2019 report, “Costs of Injustice: How Criminal System Fees Are Hurting Los Angeles County Families,” the American Civil Liberties Union included slices of life illustrating the hardship.
They included Dayvon Williams, who grew up in foster care and on the streets; after his first arrest he was put on probation for a year for theft. “I was stealing because I was hungry,” he wrote in the justice report. Williams, who suffers from epileptic seizures, went on to be charged with burglary at age 18, and could not afford bail. When seizures struck him in jail, he was accused of faking his condition, and ended up in solitary confinement.
“The fact I had been on probation and was slow to pay my fees and fines was one of the reasons that my bail was kept too high,” Williams said.
Another young person, identified as C.L. in the ACLU report, had a conviction for a prostitution-related offense expunged from her record. Still, outstanding debts from criminal justice fees have ruined her credit score, she said, preventing the mother of three from getting approved for a car loan and renting an apartment.
“Court operations costs should not be funded on the backs of Black and brown people who are disproportionately represented in a system that is built upon racialized policing,” said Brandon Greene, racial and economic justice director at the ACLU of Northern California.
In recent decades, cash-strapped state and local governments across the country have often turned to fines and fees to boost revenues instead of taxes, especially in the wake of the Great Recession. Critics of efforts to eliminate these payments — including opponents of SB 586 — say abolishing them starves vital programs, including money for public law libraries and payments to victims of crimes.
“Wholesale elimination and cancellation of fee assessments and payments will be unduly detrimental to programs that benefit victims and even defendants in criminal cases,” states a letter on July 13 sent to legislators by the California District Attorneys Association. “Victims rely on restitution payments to help put their lives back together after the impacts of crime.”
During the pandemic, California leaders passed landmark legislation that prevented counties from collecting 23 administrative criminal justice fees. Statewide advocacy groups — including the Youth Justice Coalition and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition — testified that such fees have driven vulnerable families deeper into debt, endangering successful re-entry and forcing some to choose between making the court-ordered payments, or covering medical care, groceries and rent.
The law went into effect on July 1, making California the first state to stop charging people for the cost of their public defender and for probation-related fees, including the cost of electronic monitoring devices for people on house arrest. It also wiped away about $16 billion owed by Californians, according to Debt Free Justice California, a coalition advocating for the elimination of criminal court fees.
Previously, counties were able to charge people in the criminal justice system scores of administrative fees related to their legal representation, probation supervision and incarceration. Those include costs for diversion or community services in lieu of incarceration, domestic violence-prevention classes and drug or alcohol testing.
Roughly 60 fines and fees remain in place — including the $300 fee that some counties charge for failing to appear in civil cases or for not paying fines. If signed into law, SB 586 would reduce that number.
“We punish people for being unable to pay or appear in court, to the tune of five, sometimes 10 times as much as we’re actually charging them for the underlying offense,” said Rio Scharf, a member of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco.
Fees for a single case can stack up and multiply into thousands of dollars of debt, presenting a significant barrier to achieving economic stability. Unpaid fees can also lead to more financial penalties, and can be garnished from paychecks, bank accounts and tax refunds. A 2015 survey of incarcerated people by the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that the average debt incurred through these fines and fees was $13,607 per person, roughly equal to the annual income of some low-income families.
“We look to the people who are in the system to fund the system which, in my view, is just wrong as a political and moral principle,” said Lisa Foster, a former federal judge who co-founded Fines & Fees Justice Center. “But it’s also a failed strategy because most people can’t afford to pay.”
Supporters of the effort to jettison court-ordered fees say that the state has offered to help offset most of the money lost from their elimination. A budget trailer bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) last month will provide an average of $138 million a year to counties to backfill these losses over the next four years.
State legislative analysts project that the elimination of the $300 civil assessment fee associated with SB 586 would translate to an additional loss of nearly $97 million to state courts’ budgets. But legislators are expected to introduce a budget trailer bill later this month that could address the loss of state revenue.
The state has some past experience erasing fees and fines in the justice system. In 2017, California barred juvenile probation agencies from charging parents for costs related to their children’s detention, representation and supervision in the juvenile justice system. That followed a UC Berkeley Law School report documenting how parents often struggled to deal with thousands of dollars of debt as a result of their children’s incarceration and supervision.
That report included several examples:
- After Orange County billed Maria Rivera $16,372 for her son’s detention and lawyer, she sold her home to pay much of the debt. When the county pursued the balance of the debt, it forced Rivera into bankruptcy.
- Contra Costa County billed Mariana Cuevas more than $10,000 for her son’s detention, the UC Berkeley public advocacy clinic found, even after all charges against him were dropped. A housecleaner who struggled to make ends meet, Cuevas made payments when she could, but “still they wanted to blame him for something he never did,” she said.
- Los Angeles County billed Sally Stokes, who lived on Social Security benefits, more than $1,000 for her granddaughter’s detention. Because she was unable to make payments, the county spent nearly $13,000 to pursue the debt — more than ten times the debt itself. “They were trying to take blood from a turnip,” she told researchers.
The 2019 ACLU report on Los Angeles County found that the probation department is only able to collect less than 4% of fees owed. Yet to achieve that, it had to spend more than $4 million on staff salaries — an amount that is far greater than the total amount of revenue it receives from their efforts. That finding is mirrored in a recent study by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which found that the counties studied in New Mexico and Texas spent an average of 41 cents to collect $1 in payment for administrative fees.
Those affected most are disproportionately Black and Latino, though counties do not keep good data on who is being penalized and how much money is owed.
“There needs to be some recognition of the inherent racism built into these systems,” said Greene of the ACLU, “and the way in which they lead to other downstream consequences — like racialized wealth extraction that then leads impacted communities into economic peril.”