Criminal Justice Administrative Fees: High Pain for People, Low Gain for Government. A Call to Action for California Counties.

In 2017, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Financial Justice Project, and Mayor’s Office of Budget and Public Policy studied the collateral consequences of criminal justice administrative fees on San Franciscans. Their findings were published in this report, which also coincides with 2018 San Francisco County legislation that abolished all discretionary fees imposed by the county. The report provides useful context for the abolition of fees in San Francisco and gestures toward reforms that could be implemented in other California counties.

You can read the full report here.

I have twice faced these fees, and the effort to pay these fees contributed to my eviction and homelessness. The use of these fees to pay for the mechanics of incarceration is disheartening because it makes the system dependent on people staying incarcerated. – Denny, San Francisco Resident

Key Findings
  • “Criminal justice fees pose three main problems for cities, counties, and residents. They are charged to low-income people who cannot pay them, create barriers to re-entry, and are self-defeating and anemic sources of revenue.”
  • Between city, county, and state statutes, at least 45 fines and fees can be charged to San Franciscans exiting the criminal justice system.
  • Between 2012 and 2018, San Francisco assessed more than 265,000 fines and fees for a total of $57 million. More than $20 million of that sum comes from local, discretionary fees (i.e. fees not mandated by California law).
  • Proposed legislation would ensure that no new fees are assessed, but further action is required to eliminate almost $16 million in debt owed by more than 20,000 San Franciscans. More than 75% of that sum comes from probation fees.
  • The legislation will cost the county $1 million annually, but the costs of eliminating fees are outweighed by the benefits of eliminating debt for impacted people.
  • More than 80% of fees imposed are not collected within six years.
  • In 2016, the collections rate for probation fees was 9%. The rate for all fees was 17% between 2012-2017.
Recommendations for Other California Counties
  • “Reach out to community groups and legal service providers to hear how they see criminal justice fees impacting the people they serve.”
  • “Conduct research on which local fees are charged to people in the criminal justice system in your community.”
  • “Reach out to the California Criminal Justice Fines and Fees statewide working group.”
  • “Look to the many organizations and research institutions that are conducting important research on the impacts of criminal justice fees and recommending solutions.”
  • “Identify key local leaders and advocacy groups willing to push for more just and sustainable funding sources.”

Since this report was published, San Francisco has abolished all locally-imposed fees and moved to discharge all locally-imposed criminal justice debt.

San Francisco Financial Justice Project, San Francisco Office of the Treasurer