In summary

Government should be able to balance its books without slapping excessive fines and fees on people – it’s a lose-lose arrangement.

Lea este artículo en español.

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, OVERCHARGED2021@gmail.com.

A few years back I did not come to a complete stop at a stop sign near my house in San Francisco. My stomach dropped when I saw the police officer. I had neighbors who’d been ticketed at the same spot, and I instantly knew what was coming – a citation for hundreds of dollars.

I also knew I was lucky – I could easily pay the fine. But I’d just read a report that showed that if Americans had to come up with a few hundred dollars of quick cash in a bind, about half simply couldn’t do it.

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.

As I turned the ticket in my hands, I wondered what happened to people on tight budgets when they got tickets like this?

I got my answer a couple of years later when community groups formed the Debt Free SF coalition to protest what they called city-sanctioned gouging through tickets, fines and fees. They weren’t just mad about overpriced traffic tickets, they were outraged by a whole array of fiscal punishments that were disproportionately doled out to people without the resources to pay.

If they didn’t have money to pay a traffic ticket? They were slapped with a $300 late fee and a suspended driver’s license. If they struggled to pay a $75 parking ticket? The city could double it through late fees. Car towed? That’s $500. No wonder many people just gave up their car to the impound.

People experiencing homelessness or who’d been incarcerated – the least able to pay fines – racked up big bills, too. A homeless person could be fined $200 for sleeping on a park bench. People caught up in the criminal justice system could be charged up to $35 a day to “rent” an electronic ankle monitor or $1,800 up front for monthly fees for a typical three-year probation term.

A pattern started to emerge. If you could not pay, a cascade of consequences could set in – all of which made it hard to get a job or qualify to rent an apartment. What started as a small problem would grow into a big one and derail people’s lives.

And it wasn’t just San Francisco. Research confirmed what I was seeing. Fines and fees were hard-baked into so many parts of local and state government and courts. Government had become increasingly reliant on fines and fees to raise revenue and plug budget gaps, a trend that started in the 1980s. The Great Recession in 2008 accelerated the trend nationwide. In California, traffic tickets are among the most expensive in the country, especially when hundreds of dollars of fees are added on to citations.

Earlier in my career, I focused on reining in predatory lending. This looked like predatory government.

The perverse truth is that excessive fines and fees create a lose-lose arrangement, for government and for people. What is our government really accomplishing through sky-high fines and fees that so many people cannot pay? Surely we could adjust our fines to hold people accountable without putting them in financial distress. And we should be able to balance our books without slapping fees on people at the margins of our economy.

From a revenue perspective, since so many people cannot pay, it didn’t seem like an effective or equitable way to fund government and court services. And, were fines always the best way to change behavior or deter certain actions? Were there better ways?

In San Francisco, we started the Financial Justice Project in the Office of the Treasurer to take a closer look at all our fines and fees, and see if we could find better ways to deal with harmful and unjust impacts. We’ve been at it for four years. There is still more work to do, but we’ve done a lot with our partners.

We have made many fines more fair – creating discounts for people with low incomes – for towing, booting and traffic tickets. We eliminated many fees charged primarily to people with low incomes.

And guess what? The sky has not fallen even as our ideas have spread. When San Francisco Superior Court stopped suspending the driver’s licenses of those unable to pay their traffic tickets, traffic court revenues stayed steady. When California enacted a similar law, revenues also stayed the same.  Turns out suspending someone’s driver’s license – tantamount to making them unemployable in some cases – doesn’t render them better able to pay their fines.

In San Francisco, we stopped handing people a bill when they got out of jail to pay for things like electronic ankle monitors and probation costs. Paying the fees only made it harder for people to get back on their feet in our very expensive city. Other California counties spent more to collect these fees than they brought in, because so few people could pay them. Two years later, a coalition called Debt Free Justice California propelled passage of The Families Over Fees Act to eliminate the same fees statewide. 

So many fines, fees and extra costs make no sense in the bigger picture. Almost every county charges family members ridiculously steep phone rates to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones. In Los Angeles, it’s $3.75 for a 15-minute call to a county jail. Yet studies show that incarcerated people who keep in touch with family are more likely to succeed after they are released. We want them to connect with family. Like many ill-thought out fees, these are penny-wise, pound-foolish.

California has shown leadership on fine and fee reform, and that’s exactly what we need more of right now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has swelled unemployment rolls and food pantry lines near my house now stretch around the block. 

Aid is essential that puts money directly in people’s pockets – like stimulus checks and beefing up the Earned Income Tax Credit. But this assistance will only go so far unless we also rein in the ways government depletes people’s economic reserves through California’s high fines and fees. One hand of government should not strip the resources that the other hand puts in. 

The public is demanding change. A recent poll from the Fines and Fees Justice Center found that 80% of people support reducing or replacing fines for minor violations of the law, and 79% of voters believe government revenue should not depend on making people pay more through fines, fees and tickets. 

Not surprisingly, people organizing for racial justice are leading the calls for reforms – since all of this falls the heaviest on Black and Brown people. Because communities of color are more likely to have heavier police presences, residents are more likely to get pulled over in the first place – even as they are often less able to afford the costs.

We’ve got momentum to build on. Hundreds of municipalities across the country have put the brakes on collecting various fines and fees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Grassroots organizers across California are crafting reform bills in Sacramento. We can go so much further.

Over the coming months I’ll be writing about the challenges across our state, and what the solutions might be.  You’ll meet people who are reeling from fines and fees, and the local activists coming to their aid. I’ll write about our work in San Francisco, where we have succeeded and where we haven’t.  Hopefully, we will spark dialogue and ideas for bigger and better reforms, because God knows we need them. 

I’m an optimist. These problems are solvable. And our state can be at its best when facing its biggest challenges. Sure, some people say we cannot afford these solutions. But that’s a stop sign I’m ignoring altogether.

_____

Contact Anne Stuhldreher at OVERCHARGED2021@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @AnneStuhldreher.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: commentary@calmatters.org .