More Harm than Good: Building a more Just Fine and Fee System in California

Fines and fees push many low-income, Black, and Latinx California families into debt, cutting into their ability to meet basic needs. Researchers estimate that there is at least $10 billion in outstanding fines and fees debt, with the amount outstanding growing every year. Meanwhile, the rate of traffic citations and other fines and fees being levied has not declined, indicating that the system of fines and fees is failing to produce the desired behavior change. In this report, the author presents recommendations to address the challenges caused by the state’s reliance on fines and fees.

Read the full report here.

Key Findings: 

  • More than half of all traffic citations are not paid at the end of the year; in FY 2018-2019, 56 percent of fines went unpaid. 
  • Despite representing only 6.5 percent of the population, Black people accounted for 15.2 percent of police stops in 2019.
  • According to 2019-2020 budget projections, fines and fees accounted for 0.06 percent of the budget in San Francisco, 1.43 percent in Oakland, and 1.50 percent in Oakland. 


  • Eliminate all criminal legal fees, assessments and surcharges
  • Expand and automate ability-to-pay programs
  • Invest in alternatives to traffic enforcement to reduce bias
  • Invest in alternatives to fines to reduce harms
Jacob Denney