Across California, local governments are abolishing court fees

Legal fees tend to fall disproportionately on low-income people.


Earlier this year, LA County Board of Supervisors voted to do away with most court-related fines and fees

This story was originally published by CityLab and is reproduced here as part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network

In his two years on probation, Anthony Robles had never received a visit from authorities. Then, one day in 2016, officers raided the home where he was staying and found his cannabis stash.

That was enough for Los Angeles County to place him on probation for two additional years, which meant more money he’d have to pay in probation fees. Robles says the irony was that he was selling weed mostly so he could pay those fees and court fines to begin with. When he was released from jail in 2014, he immediately fell behind on payments, unable to get a job with a criminal record. But looking back he says he probably wouldn’t have paid even if he had the money. 

“I felt like, why should I pay probation for their services if they’re not even providing me any,” Robles says. “They never helped me get into school. They never helped me find a job. They never gave me access to computers or tutors or whatever I needed to get on my feet. So I didn't want to pay them that. I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”

Today Robles is an organizer with the LA-based Youth Justice Coalition, an organization that is part of a wider network of criminal justice reform advocates called Debt Free Justice California. In February, that network successfully lobbied the LA County Board of Supervisors to vote to eliminate most court-related fines and fees, including probation. Three other counties in California’s Bay Area — San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa — have passed similar measures since 2018. A 2019 report from the Brennan Center for Justice found that in many places, “judges rarely hold hearings to establish defendants’ ability to pay [and] as a result, the burden of fees and fines falls largely on the poor, much like a regressive tax.” 

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM advocates in California first struck the court system in 2009, when they persuaded the LA supervisors board to eliminate court fines and fees for juvenile defendants. Five years later, protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, brought national attention to the adverse impacts of such expenses, ranging from crippling debt to lost drivers’ licenses to jail time. Spurred by new momentum for reform, the California Tax Franchise Board announced this past March that it would halt collecting court-related fine and fee revenue for the state. It’s one example of how voices outside California courtrooms have succeeded in pushing the state to the vanguard of financial justice in the U.S., with LA and the Bay Area leading the way.

But advocates have a long way to go, even in those localities — especially with new layers of inequity created by the pandemic. Debt Free Justice California is now working to convince state legislators to pass Senate Bill 144, which would permanently block all California counties from imposing court fines and fees. But first they have to get LA County to follow through on its February vote. Unlike the three other counties mentioned, LA courts have continued to collect probation fees and other court-related debts, according to Debt Free Justice California. The group sent a letter to the county’s Superior Court in April demanding that it “immediately implement the Board of Supervisors’ Feb. 18 motion requiring that Los Angeles County end the imposition of new, and collection of past, county-imposed court, probation and sheriff’s fees, and discharge past related debt.” Clerk of Courts Sherri R. Carter replied with a letter saying that staff was still finalizing fees affected by the motion. She and other officers of the court didn’t respond to CityLab requests for comment.

“We’re stuck in a position where the county has eliminated fees, but the [court] agencies aren’t changing the way they do business, and the county board of supervisors haven’t stepped in to get them in line,” says Adrienna Wong, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California who works with Debt Free Justice California.  

Debt Free Justice California also asked the court system, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, to suspend collection of “all government-imposed debt,” including from third-party collection agents, for at least four months, and to clear out any outstanding debts, such as liens and civil judgments. The court responded saying it had already suspended collections of several court-related debts. 

This would be welcome news to those facing even more difficult circumstances caused by Covid-19, which has led to historic levels of unemployment. But some people may still think they have outstanding court fines and fees simply because they don’t know that the county voted to eliminate them in the first place.

“They haven’t sent a notice out to people stating that they're no longer collecting probation fees or any other county-imposed fees,” says Robles. “We’ve been trying to push the board of supervisors to mandate a memo to the courts about the new changes in the local laws, and for the court to send letters to everybody on probation saying that they do not have to pay that. It's been really frustrating.”

Likewise, the April letter from Debt Free Justice California also asked that the court notify those affected so people “can plan their finances accordingly,” by updating websites and payment portals. As it stands, the state’s Franchise Tax Board still contains language on its website saying that if people don’t pay court debts, it “may collect money from your paycheck or bank account to satisfy your debt.” 

Once an arrest happens, fines and fees can add up quickly, both before and after a hearing: Diversion fees, program fees, monitoring fees, pre-sentence investigation report fees — in addition to restitution, fines, and probation fees if convicted. These can reach hundreds and often thousands of dollars for those entangled in the system. When these sums are not paid, they can lead to courts imposing even more financial penalties and jail time, not to mention wrecking individuals’ credit scores. 

43% of people arrested by the LA Police Department between 2012 and 2017 were unemployed, according to a 2018 study.

Given that the majority of people ensnared by the criminal justice system are of modest means — 43% of people arrested by the LA Police Department between 2012 and 2017 were unemployed, according to a 2018 study  — it’s no surprise that courts are having a difficult time collecting these debts. Since 2014, of the $121 million in fees and fines assessed by courts on average annually, the county has received only about $4.5 million a year, or 4% of the amount owed, which means Robles was far from the only one who wasn’t paying up. 

Meanwhile, the county spends more than $4 million on staff for collecting said fees, which according to the 2019 ACLU report, “The Costs of Injustice,” is more than the amount of probation fee revenue it brings in. It’s possible that the $4 million spent on staff is an underestimate of all the costs associated with collections. As the Brennan Center for Justice found in its 2019 “The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines” report, most jurisdictions don’t fully track the costs associated with collections. In Texas, the Brennan Center found that: 

No jurisdiction tracks any of the following: the court costs for fee and fine administration, the cost to public defender systems for dealing with their clients’ fees and fines, the cost to parole and probation systems for fee and fine enforcement (whether they engage in collections or simply remind their charges constantly to pay their court debts), the cost to DMV offices processing license suspensions or state tax agencies processing offsets, and the cost to law enforcement for warrant enforcement or arrests for failure to pay or suspended driver’s licenses.

The Brennan Center study focuses on statewide data for Texas, Florida and New Mexico, and also ten counties among those three states. Overall, it found that these jurisdictions spend an additional 41 cents for every dollar they collect back in fees. Meaning, the imposition of court fines and fees on mostly poor people has been losing revenue for these states and counties. The ACLU’s report had similar findings for L.A. County. 

COURT FINES AND FEES also drain the families they are imposed upon. While criminal justice reform advocates have been documenting these encumbrances for years, the Federal Reserve included the impacts of court fines and fees for the first time ever in its latest Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households released in May 2020. It found that a fifth of those surveyed with an incarcerated immediate family member reported having legal debts, as did 6% of all people surveyed. The report quantifies how these court debts are mostly visited upon people who are already deeply indebted. Forty-three percent of families with legal debts also had outstanding medical debts. Families with legal debts were also more likely to have credit card and student loan debt — “despite being less likely to have gone to college than those without unpaid legal debts.” (Robles was enrolled in community college while he was on probation.) Among families with unpaid legal expenses, 39% were considered underbanked, while 13% didn't have a bank at all.

Studies have found that the reliance on court fines and fees for revenue increases when cities and counties are themselves financially strapped. The U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Ferguson’s criminal justice systems after the killing of Michael Brown found that the city sharply increased its stopping, frisking, ticketing and arresting of mostly African American residents of low income after the 2008 financial crisis. Ferguson became the poster child for cities that used court-ordered debt to increase their revenue streams in order to cover budget gaps, said Joanna Weiss, the co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national clearinghouse for fines and fees-related research and reforms. She fears that the practice could soon expand, multiplying harms on communities of color who’ve been hit hardest by the coronavirus.

That is why there has been a surge in recent years in advocacy around financial justice, particularly in California, home to the country’s largest state court system serving nearly 40 million residents. In spring 2015, a coalition of legal experts and activists across the state released a review of how fines and fees were also harming vulnerable residents while straining law enforcement resources. One major concern was the 4 million Californians who’d had their driver’s licenses suspended since 2006 for being unable to pay court-ordered fines and tickets. 

AS THE NATION’S most populous county, LA’s recent reforms have arguably had the widest impact in California. But the Bay Area has recently also produced new models for financial justice advocacy as well as results. In 2016, a group of San Francisco-based advocacy groups launched Debt Free SF to spotlight the monetary sanctions hurting the city’s poor, homeless, and previously incarcerated residents. Beyond driver’s license suspensions, the group released research highlighting problems with money bail, vehicle towing costs, administrative fees for interactions with the court system, and fines for littering, sleeping in public, and other minor infractions. Small tickets and fines left unpaid — often due to a person’s inability to pay or lack of knowledge of having been fined in the first place — could spiral into large amounts of debt and turn into jail sentences, they found. 

Created as an answer to Debt Free SF, the San Francisco Financial Justice Project is a first-of-its-kind government office devoted to untangling San Francisco’s sticky web of court-ordered debt. Housed within the San Francisco treasury office, it functions as a kind of accountability-focused comptroller, with the special aim of eliminating the disparate burden that fines and fees create for low-income people of color. Its staff respond to problems highlighted by legal advocates and anti-poverty groups by conducting investigations and reporting on recommended reforms, and then will partner with the appropriate county and city department to implement them. 

“All these penalties we’ve layered on just ratchet up tensions between communities of color and police,” said Anne Stuhldreher, the project’s executive director. “This pattern of ticketing people who are then not able to pay these penalties leads to and fuels these really harsh police interactions.”   

In 2018, the project helped push San Francisco to become the first county in the U.S. to eliminate all administrative fees billed to people leaving jail or the court system. In 2019, it worked with the superior court to lift all outstanding driver’s license suspensions on people who had missed a traffic court date, following up on a 2017 statewide measure to eliminate driver’s license suspensions for failing to pay a ticket, which was signed by Governor Jerry Brown following a 2016 lawsuit by low-income motorists. And in 2020, the San Francisco District Attorney announced the end of money bail countywide. The Financial Justice Project has also worked with the SFMTA to reduce towing fines and to improve access to transit pass discounts.

“We have to have reparations.”

San Francisco’s work could be a model for other places in the U.S., Weiss said. But she fears what might be in store. “We've been trying to collect money from people who don’t have it, and they often end up in jail, or harassed or shaken down,” she said. “We’re trying to fund our governments on the backs of communities of color, and in a post-Covid world, that is just going to be impossible. I shudder to think of the more draconian collection practices to come.”

This is a point that advocates and those directly impacted by fine and fee harassment, like Robles, have been making for years: That the system exploits and extracts resources from the poorest in society. Robles was living off of food stamps and a monthly $200 stipend when he was given a $4,000 bill for probation supervision. A full year went by before he was told he qualified for a reduction in that bill due to his income constraints, and yet he says he still struggled with making payments, which is why he had to turn back to selling weed. When he was turned in for a probation violation, it was for possessing the same substance, cannabis, that white Californians were making billions of dollars from. Such conditions would seem like grounds for the county paying back what was stripped from people like Robles. 

“We have to have reparations,” says Robles. “All this time, all these families that were torn apart, all this trauma that our families had to go through and for things that are now legal and that people are making money off of while we were actually robbed of our money and robbed of our liberties, and freedom and dignity for doing the same exact thing. It’s not fair.”

Brentin Mock and Laura Bliss are writers for CityLab. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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