Criminal fines and fees often help fuel city revenues while harming the poor communities of color they serve, according to Reuters.
San Francisco was one of the first cities to confront misappropriated fines and fees by “scrapping all administrative fees in its criminal justice system in 2018,” said Anne Stuhldreher, director of the San Francisco Treasurer’s Financial Justice Project.
The city eliminated the debt of 21,000 people, a total of $32 million, the April 1 story reported. The elimination of collected fees included ankle bracelet rentals, pre-sentencing reports, and probation fees. San Francisco also made the city jail phone calls free.
“A lot of this is ‘high pain, low gain’,” Stuhldreher said.
San Francisco has also halted suspending drivers’ licenses for unpaid traffic tickets, which prompted Washington, D.C. and 22 states to do the same.
“At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder for Americans to pay their bills and care for their families, taking away someone’s driver’s license can make it nearly impossible to hold down a job and therefore pay back their debts,” said Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware in a statement.
In Ferguson, a town of 21,000 people in Missouri, the Department of Justice reported more than 16,000 people had unpaid fines that had turned into warrants in late 2014.
“That report showed that when you take a poor community and try to use this method to fill budget holes, you’re trying to get money from the poorest members of the community,” said Joanna Weiss, co-director of Fines and Fees Justice Center.
“Fines and fees are a problem everywhere, and it’s remarkable … how many places are hungry to address this problem,” she told the Thomas Reuters Foundation.
There was a lot of momentum stemming from a 2015 report generated about the killing of Michael Brown, a Black teen shot dead by a Ferguson police officer.
Another Justice Department report showed that almost a quarter of this city’s budget came from fines and fees.
It was a policy-shaping strategy that was “shaping” policing policies, said the article.
Anand Subramanian, managing director of the nonprofit PolicyLink, isn’t sure how effective some reforms will be. “In some places it actually increases, and in some places it doesn’t. But nobody has really done a holistic assessment,” he said. Many cities and counties are ill-equipped to evaluate revenue from fines versus collection costs, he commented.
PolicyLink feels that there will always be a need for an audit system, Subramanian said. Such a system could have led to local officials being more open to re-examining fees as opposed to fines, said the article.
“Has it changed the way we think about things in St. Paul? Absolutely,” said Subramanian. “It’s a conversation all the time now.”
Paul Conley Briley spent time in a San Francisco jail a few years ago. He feels the hardest part of incarceration was not talking to his family. His goal was to spare family members the cost of his phone calls, according to the article.
“If an incarcerated person made two 15-minute a day calls, it would have cost $300 over an average 70-day stay,” he said. “I knew they didn’t have money.”
Briley also pointed out the high cost of items like soap among other fees that can leave incarcerated member’s families with growing debt, according to the article.