National Effort to Reform Harmful Fines and Fees Announces Local Champions

Today, ten jurisdictions were announced as the winners of a national competition to join a leadership network pursuing bold, innovative solutions to reform unjust fines and fees. The selected leaders represent cities and counties across the country that are rethinking their reliance on fines and fees levied on residents for infractions large and small. In recent years a growing national movement has emerged to reform exploitative fine and fee policies that drive racial injustice, economic inequality, and mass criminalization.

“Dismantling oppressive systems is the work of our generation. Our current crisis puts this into high relief. These leaders are modeling the visionary and courageous work that must be done if we are to have a nation that is just and fair for everyone,” said Michael McAfee, President and CEO of PolicyLink, one of the three organizations that developed Cities & Counties for Fine and Fee Justice.

Cities & Counties for Fine and Fee Justice is a network facilitated by PolicyLink, the City of San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project, and the Fines and Fees Justice Center, each nationally recognized for their work advancing racial and economic equity through research and advocacy. The selected cities and counties are awarded $50,000 and access to technical expertise and guidance, along with membership in a cohort of other teams to develop customized solutions with community input. Cities and counties selected in the inaugural cohort are:

  • Allegheny County, PA
  • Chicago, IL
  • Dallas, TX
  • Durham, NC
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Providence, RI
  • Sacramento City and County, CA
  • Seattle/King County, WA
  • Shelby County, TN
  • St. Paul, MN

Fines and fees have devastated the lives of millions of Americans, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and punishment—with the harms overwhelmingly falling on people of color and people living on low incomes. These financial penalties can make the government a driver of inequality, not an equalizer of opportunity.

Recently, many states, counties and cities have passed important reforms to make their fines and fees more fair and just. And, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, numerous state and local governments and courts are taking emergency measures to change their criminal, traffic and municipal ordinance policies to ensure that fines and fees are not a barrier to people’s basic needs throughout this emergency.

“In San Francisco, many of our fines and fees were putting people in significant financial distress with little gain for the government due to low collection rates,” said San Francisco Mayor London Breed. “Our reforms give people a fighting chance to succeed and are manageable for government to implement. We’re thrilled to work with other cities and counties across the country that want to do the same. The economic fallout from COVID-19 will surely strain our budgets, but the crisis will strain the household budgets of our most vulnerable residents even more. We need to continue to focus on this work moving forward so we don’t further strain the inequality we see in our cities.”

The City of San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project, led by Treasurer José Cisneros, has made fines more fair and gotten rid of fees that do not make sense. San Francisco has eliminated or created low-income discounts for dozens of fees and fines.

“Over the past three years we’ve learned through these reforms that we can hold people accountable without putting them in financial distress,” said Cisneros. “And we can balance our budgets in common sense ways that are not on the backs of the least fortunate people in our communities.”

For residents living on low incomes, a cascade of consequences sets in when they cannot pay: their debt can grow, their driver’s license can be suspended, their credit score goes down, their economic opportunities are diminished, and in some places they are arrested and jailed. These local leaders have found that fines and fees that exceed residents’ ability to pay are often a lose-lose, for people and for government.

“Even before COVID-19, most U.S. municipalities were already overdue for fines and fees reform,” said Joanna Weiss and Lisa Foster, co-directors of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “State and local budgets can no longer be balanced on the backs of the people who can least afford it.”

What does fines and fees reform look like?

  • The City and County of San Francisco, CA was the first in the country to eliminate all county-imposed criminal justice fees in 2018. They also cut tow and boot fees in half for low-income residents, reformed payment plans for parking tickets, implemented ability-to-pay determinations for traffic fines and fees, made jail phone calls free, and ended jail store/commissary markups. The City also took action to provide fine and fee relief during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Chicago recently announced it would end driver’s license suspensions for people who cannot pay city sticker fines and parking tickets, while creating more accessible payment plans for people with trouble paying, and ending the practice of fining people twice in one day for a city sticker violation.
  • Durham, NC recently implemented a program with the District Attorney and the court to waive old traffic fines and fees, while helping restore 35,000 driver’s licenses that had been suspended for non-payment.
  • The City of Los Angeles voided nearly two million minor citations and warrants that had kept people trapped in the court system. The announcement was designed to fix a system that has led to many people being repeatedly ticketed and arrested for minor infractions.
  • New York City became the first U.S. city to guarantee free jail phone calls in 2018. Just one week after this reform was implemented, call volume at the Rikers jail complex increased by 38 percent. Before 2018, NYC was generating about $5 million each year from jail phone call fees.
  • Shelby County, TN made all phone calls to juvenile detention facilities free in 2019. Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich also adopted a policy of declining to prosecute driving on a suspended license in cases where the license was suspended or revoked for nonpayment of fines and fees, reducing the office’s caseload by 43 percent.

The newly selected jurisdictions will work together over the course of 18 months to develop and implement reforms to fines and fees, sharing approaches and breakthroughs within the network and with other cities and counties.

To learn more about Counties & Cities for Fine and Fee Justice, visit the website.

About Cities & Counties for Fine and Fee Justice partners

The San Francisco Financial Justice Project is the nation’s first effort embedded in government to assess and reform fines, fees, and financial penalties that disproportionately impact low-income residents and communities of color. Working with community organizations, advocates, city and county departments, and courts, the Financial Justice Project has spearheaded the elimination or reduction of dozens of fines and fees and lifted millions of dollars in debt off of tens of thousands of local residents. The Project’s accomplishments are listed here, and here is a guide to available fine and fee discounts for San Francisco low-income residents.

The Fines and Fees Justice Center seeks to catalyze a movement to eliminate the fines and fees that distort justice. FFJC’s goal is to eliminate fees in the justice system and to ensure that fines are equitably imposed and enforced. FFJC provides resources, makes critical connections, offers strategic advice, and serves as a hub for the fines and fees reform movement, working with impacted communities, researchers, advocates, legislators, justice system stakeholders, and media all across America. For more information on fines and fees work around the country please see the searchable FFJC Clearinghouse here.

PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity by Lifting Up What Works. Over the last several years, PolicyLink has worked to educate advocates and government leaders about the harmful impact of fines and fees on low-income communities, particularly those of color. PolicyLink is a leading proponent of the Families Over Fees Act (also known as California Senate Bill 144), potentially groundbreaking legislation that would eliminate virtually all criminal fees in California. PolicyLink is also a steering committee member of Debt Free Justice California, a statewide coalition committed to ending criminal legal system policies that disproportionately penalize low-income people.