Pay or Prey: How the Alameda County criminal justice system extracts wealth from marginalized communities

This whitepaper uses evidence-based research and personal narratives to examine the harms caused by Alameda County criminal legal fees. It also makes several recommendations for reform that have been endorsed by the Alameda County Probation Department, Public Defender, and Sheriff’s Department. 

A few months after this whitepaper was published, Alameda County abolished a wide range of criminal legal fees, including fees for probation, booking, electronic monitoring, and warrants. 

Authors’ executive summary: “The collections rates are consistently low, while the burden of court debt wreaks extraordinary havoc on the lives of individuals, who are disproportionately people of color trying to successfully reenter society. The current system is not only a manifestation of the racialization of the criminal justice system but also an example of how bad fiscal policy that exacts high pain for little gain contributes to wealth stripping of vulnerable communities.” 

You can read the full text of the whitepaper here

Key Findings
  • The average financial obligation for adults on probation in Alameda County in 2018 was more than $6000.
  • “Although Black residents only represent 11.3% of Alameda County’s population, Black individuals represent 47% of its probation population. Latinos represent 23% of people on probation.”
  • Before probation fees were abolished, the probation department did not conduct ability to pay determinations and Alameda county courts had no infrastructure in place to address inability to pay. “Every individual [was] charged the same amount of probation supervision fees upfront regardless of what his or her individualized supervision entails.” 
  • “The total outstanding balance on these probation-related fees for the [2017-2018 financial year] in Alameda County was more than $21.3 million. In all, only 4% of outstanding debt was collected by Alameda County this past year.”
  • “In Alameda County, the Sheriff’s Office requires a “registration fee” of $65 and a daily fee of $12 to participate in  SWAP [the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program]. The entire fee is calculated upon registration and a lump sum must be paid upfront in order for the person to enroll in the program. Individuals who cannot pay are denied the opportunity to enroll. Failure to enroll in SWAP is commonly treated as a failure to comply in criminal court and can result in jail time.”


  • Abolish fees and end relevant collection activity
  • Discharge all previously assessed fees
  • Reimburse individuals who were improperly assessed fees



Theresa Zhen and Brandon Greene, East Bay Community Law Center