Advancing Financial Justice in San Francisco: The Experience and Lessons of the City’s Financial Justice Project

San Francisco has led the way in local fines and fees reform.  The city and county eliminated locally imposed fees in the criminal legal system, made phone calls from jail free, eliminated mark-ups on commissary, and reduced fines, particularly for low-income residents. This paper summarizes the lessons, successes, and challenges of the San Francisco Financial Justice Project since its launch in November 2016. 

You can read the full text of the paper here.

Key findings

  • Fostering positive relationships and building trust with government and court leaders takes time and is vital to move reforms forward. 
  • Engaging community stakeholders throughout the entire process is crucial. 
  • Fine and fee reforms can generate more revenue than the system that was in place before the reforms were implemented. 
  • Harsh consequences for nonpayment can force low-income people deeper into poverty and serve as counterproductive collection tools. 
  • City and county government leaders may unaware of the negative impacts caused by fines and fees.
  • Although city and county officials may be motivated to advance reforms, concerns about revenue loss and the lack of capacity to do soi can be discouraging.
  • Data on fines and fees is often difficult to find or does not exist. 
  • San Francisco’s fines and fees should be analyzed on a regular basis through the City and County budget process. 
  • The broader community can be receptive to a fine and fee reform agenda. 
  • Local reforms can spur reforms in other counties and across the state, and eventually across the country.  


  • Engage community organizations early and often and build rapport with government and court stakeholders. 
  • Understand and evaluate the fines and fees imposed by your jurisdiction by assessing the negative impacts of fines and fees, differentiating between fines and fees, and identifying the government stakeholders who have the authority over the fines and fees. 
  • Develop a reform agenda.
  • After a reform has been passed or approved, use similar efforts and strategies for effective and efficient implementation.   
Anne Stuhldreher and Christa Brown, Financial Justice Project