Breaking a Debt Cycle

After going through S.F.’s criminal justice system, people often owe tens of thousands in local admin fees, most of which will never be paid.

Supervisor London Breed proposed a bill in February that would abolish fees in our city’s criminal justice system. On Tuesday, the  Board of Supervisors approved it unanimously. When instituted, it will eliminate a slew of financial charges, from the $35-per-day rental fee for an electronic ankle monitor to a $50 monthly probation fee. All told, it’s not uncommon for 45 separate fees to be filed on someone exiting jail.

The eradication of these charges would be a game-changer for people who move through our courts, many of whom accrue tens of thousands of dollars in fines and fees even if time is served and they don’t violate their probations.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland interviewed 700 formerly incarcerated people and found that the average debt accrued through court-related fines and fees was $13,607 per person — an amount nearly equal to the respondents’ annual income. Paying them off in full is a huge challenge, particularly for those entering the workforce with a conviction on their record. As a result, most of them don’t even get paid.

“These fees are high pain for people, but low gain for government,” San Francisco Treasurer José Cisneros said in a statement. “They are assessed on low-income people who cannot pay them and create barriers for people re-entering their communities. Only a fraction of these fees is ever collected, and I challenge other counties to join San Francisco in stopping the practice of balancing our books on the backs of people who cannot afford it.”

Even the legislation to repeal these fees and fines is strongly worded, with an unusual editorial critique of current policy.

“There is often an insidious, unintended consequence of this practice — to push people into poverty, or push them even deeper into poverty if they already were there,” it states. “These fines, fees, and penalties can trap people in a cycle of debt, and low-income people and people of color are often hit the hardest. Under this system, government becomes a driver of inequality, creating additional layers of punishment for those moving through the criminal justice system.”

If the mayor signs off on this legislation it will also clear old debts, helping more than 20,000 people regionally who’ve collectively accrued $15 million in debt from local fees.

Making up the difference won’t be that difficult, either. An analysis done by the Mayor’s Office estimates that it’ll only cost $1 million a year in foregone revenue. All this begs the question: Why the hell wasn’t this done earlier?

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