S.F. May Eradicate City’s Court Fines and Fees

Those who come out of the criminal justice system can owe thousands in court fees, stunting their ability to get back on their feet.

An inmate walks down a hallway in San Francisco’s County Jail. (Photo: Jessica Christian)

Joseph Williams works hard. He’s a father of two, and works at GLIDE, running pilot programs that seek alternatives to incarceration. From the outside, it appears that he’s doing well — but the reality is he’s struggling, hard. He’s picked up two extra jobs and is choosing “between diapers, food, or medication” for his family. The reason: exorbitant, predatory fines from San Francisco courts.

When someone is arrested and charged for a crime, fees begin accruing immediately, regardless of whether or not they’re convicted. A booking fee costs $135. A pre-sentence report fee is $150. Those electronic ankle bracelets? They cost the wearer $125 up front, plus $35 each day. And individuals entering adult-probation programs are charged an initial $1,800 fee.

“Many of these fines and fees total more than $10,000, if you can imagine that,” says Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “Most of them have absolutely nothing to do with the crime, or making restitution for the victim.”

They’re also difficult to collect. So many people are unable to pay them that only nine to 15 percent of all fees are actually paid. And, ironically, they can deter people from entering the workforce, as once the city finds out you’re working, wages will be garnished — sometimes by as much as 50 percent — until the fines are paid in full.

But soon, San Francisco may become the first city in the United States to eliminate these court fees. President of the Board of Supervisors London Breed introduced legislation this week that, if passed, would get rid of these city court charges for good.

“They’re counterproductive, problematic sources of revenue born on the backs of our most vulnerable populations of San Francisco, and we’re not having it anymore,” she said at a press conference Tuesday.

Although the Board of Supervisors still has to vote on the legislation, the proposal is already having a ripple effect across the city’s justice departments. Sheriff Vicki Hennessy announced that her department will no longer charge offenders for electronic monitors — something that earns the city $200,000 each year — or for the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program, which draws in another $100,000. The money helps offset the department’s operation costs, but it will now be supplemented with funds from the Mayor’s office.

This may not apply retroactively to Williams’ problem, but it does create a smoother path forward for those who are exiting our criminal justice system — and could inspire other cities to follow suit.

“Radical policies are supposed to come out of San Francisco to inspire generations of people and elected officials across the entire state of California, and ultimately the USA,” says Supervisor Malia Cohen. “Those folks back east and down south better hold on tight. We saw what happened in Alabama, and we will continue to see that wave of radicalism moving forward.”

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