In summary

It’s long past time for California to end civil assessments and court fees that heap debt on people on top of their punishment.

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By Anne Stuhldreher, Special to CalMatters

Anne Stuhldreher directs The Financial Justice Project in the treasurer’s office of the city and county of San Francisco and is a fellow with the Aspen Institute’s Financial Security Program,

The decade leading up to 2019 was horrific for Stephanie Jeffcoat. The 34-year-old lived in a tent on the streets of Anaheim, struggling with homelessness and addiction. She was charged with petty theft and was in and out of jail. Her life is now “the polar opposite.” 

She’s been sober for 30 months; she has a job at the nonprofit A New Way Of Life; and she is a full-time student, studying to get her associate’s degree, all while taking care of her daughter. “The plan is to have a law degree by the time I’m 40.”

OVERCHARGED takes an inside look at how unfair fines and fees criminalize poverty in California. The series tells the stories of people reeling from this approach of raising revenue and the activists fighting for reform.

Jeffcoat hasn’t totally escaped her past, however.  Even after serving jail time, her full debt to society remains unpaid. Like hundreds of thousands of Californians, she owes user fees under a regressive and outdated set of rules that heaps debt on people on top of their punishment.

Even if you’re lucky enough to avoid Jeffcoat’s fate, you have likely felt the sting of such fees. They are the primary reason California’s traffic tickets are among the most expensive in the nation.

Unlike fines, they aren’t meant to be punishments. They’re simply intended to cover the costs of administering justice. Yet, they fail completely in that capacity.

The problem is that few have the means to pay them — small wonder, when approximately 80% of people in the criminal legal system are indigent. Instead, the fees excel at dragging down people, like Jeffcoat, who need every penny they earn to put a roof over their heads and to support their families. They are particularly painful for Black and Latino families, who are more likely to have low incomes and to be pulled over or arrested.

Consider one of the bigger fees that Jeffcoat owed as the result of her legal problems: the $300 civil assessment. This is a late fee charged to people who either cannot pay their fees and fines within 21 days or who miss a traffic court date. Jeffcoat was charged with it when she could not pay.

“To tack more money onto my bill doesn’t make sense,” she says. “It doesn’t make it easier for me to pay; it makes it harder.”

In San Francisco, approximately one-third of people who got traffic tickets this year were hit with civil assessment fees. Only about 13% of these fees are ever collected: People simply cannot afford them. Many people don’t even realize the fees exist prior to getting whacked with them.

As one California court official told me: “Show me the person who reads the fine print and understands they’ll be charged the $300 civil assessment if they don’t pay or miss their court date,” he said. “It’s archaic; no one knows about it.”  

Ultimately, Jeffcoat was one of the fortunate ones. An Orange County judge looked at her list of fees, saw the progress she was making, and eliminated many of them. But she still owes several hundred dollars and lives with the fear of arrest if she cannot pay.

For everyone’s sake, it’s long past time for the state to get rid of these harmful fees — including civil assessments. Fortunately, there’s momentum to do so. Gov. Gavin Newsom has set aside money in his budget to eliminate high pain/low gain fees. And state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, has authored Senate Bill 586, the Finish the Fees Act. The Debt Free Justice California coalition is propelling these reforms. 

These actions are a crucial piece of the push to advance racial justice and help families in poverty. Yes, we need to put money in people’s pockets through the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit. But we shoot ourselves in the foot if we then pick the same pockets through sky-high court fees.

Naysayers may moan that if the civil assessment is eliminated, courts will need another “hammer” to spur people to pay up or show up at court. But if we get rid of civil assessments, people can still be tried in absentia even if they don’t show up for court. People will still get points on their license and have their insurance costs go up if they don’t address their citations.

It turns out we don’t always need to use a big stick to drive good behavior. Several years ago, San Francisco Superior Court became the first in California to stop suspending people’s driver’s licenses when they could not pay their traffic tickets or if they missed their court dates. The court’s leadership decided the penalty was too extreme — it was making it very hard for people to get or keep jobs.

Instead, the court started communicating more clearly with people about what they owed and their options to pay. The court started sending monthly statements and beefed up its payment plan options and discounts for lower-income people. Since then, the court has collected more money per citation and has seen no difference in court appearance rates. When California as a whole followed suit, its collections increased as well.

We don’t have to saddle people with debt and fear to get them to do what we want. When New York City courts started texting reminders to people, the court appearance rate went up 26%, compared with a control group that got no reminders.

Jeffcoat’s job at a New Way of Life is to help people who are where she was two years ago — getting clean and trying to get off the streets. It’s vital work, but she spends most of her time helping them figure out how to navigate the criminal legal system and address their fines and fees.

It’s time she’d much rather spend helping them find jobs or housing.

“That’s what they need,” said Jeffcoat.  “It’s what our state needs, too.”


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