Criminal Justice Administrative Fees: San Francisco owes refunds to thousands

On February 6, 2018, San Francisco introduced legislation to eliminate all criminal justice administrative fees and cancel all outstanding debt from these criminal justice fees. The ordinance changed the Administrative Code to abolish fees associated with probation costs, restitution, booking, the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program, the automated county warrant system, the Sheriff’s Home Detention Program, and to abolish local penalties associated with alcohol testing and court-ordered penalties for misdemeanor and felony offenses.

Criminal Justice Fees: Another form of punishment that burdens the poor

Local criminal justice fees are designed to generate revenue to cover costs but they often create another form of punishment. These fees imposed on people who have already been punished by the criminal justice system through jail time, fines and victim restitution, can amount to thousands of dollars. In San Francisco the fees can include a $50 monthly probation fee; up to $35 a day to rent an electronic ankle surveillance monitor, and other fees to pay for reports, collections costs, or tests.

Research was conducted over the past year on the impact of these criminal justice administrative fees because many defendants in San Francisco have difficulty paying these fees which are additional obstacles to re-entering society successfully after a criminal case that may have resulted in incarceration. The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, The San Francisco Financial Justice Project, and The San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Budget and Public Policy conducted research with collaboration from the the Adult Probation Department, the Sheriff’s Department, and the District Attorney’s Office.

Fees create debt and barriers to re-entry

Their findings are published in a report: Criminal Justice Administrative Fees: High Pain for People, Low Gain for Government-A Call to Action for California Counties
https://sftreasurer.org/sites/default/files/Criminal%20Justice%20Fees_High%20Pain_Low%20Gain%20FINAL.pd

• At least 45 fines and fees can be assessed from people exiting our local criminal justice system, approximately 30 of which are administrative fees. Some are assessed by the county, and others by the courts or state government.

• Over the last six years, more than 265,000 fines and fees have been charged to local individuals, totaling almost $57 million. More than $20 million of these fines and fees are locally controlled and authorized by San Francisco County.

• Over the last six years, over 20,000 individuals have accumulated more than $15 million in unpaid debt from locally authorized fees. This legislation seeks the elimination of this outstanding debt.

• The collection rates on these fees are very low, averaging seventeen per cent, because people cannot afford to pay them.

• Monthly $50 probation fees cause the most debt and appear to be the hardest for people to pay. In San Francisco, individuals are charged a monthly $50 probation fee. The entire $1,800 cost of the average three-year probation supervision term is billed to the individual upfront at the beginning of their probation. A total of $15.8 million in probation fees has been assessed in the last six years. Of the $15.8 million, more than $12 million is still uncollected.

• The Mayor’s Budget Office estimates that elimination of these criminal justice administrative fees will cost $1 million a year in lost revenue but will remove $15 million in debt off thousands of individuals, most of whom are very low income. This debt makes it difficult to meet expenses and is a barrier to their successful re-entry

Fees impact low-income people and increase recidivism

1. Fees are primarily charged to low-income people who cannot afford to pay them. Most people released from jail or prison have no jobs and have difficulty finding employment. The Public Defender’s Clean Slate Program which assist individuals seeking to expunge their criminal record, found that more than two thirds of the Clean Slate clients are unemployed, and of those who were, their median annual income was $2,500 per year.

2. The fees create additional obstacle for successful re-integration into the community following incarceration and increase the likelihood of recidivism. Unpaid fees are often garnished from people’s paychecks or levied from their bank accounts. An unpaid fee can prevent someone from getting their record expunged.

3. These fees create high pain” for individuals and “low gain” for government because most of these fees are never collected but just burden individuals and families with debt.

San Francisco has been illegally collecting fees and owes refunds

Anmarie Mabbut is a San Francisco attorney and open government advocate specializing in municipal fee legislation, public-private partnerships and public park access has reported that the Sheriff’s Department and Superior Court officials had been illegally collecting fees for more than two decades. (See: S.F. owes the thousands who paid criminal justice fees a refund
http://www.sfexaminer.com/s-f-owes-thousands-paid-criminal-justice-fees-refund/)

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors never approved the registration or monthly fees for home detention, electronic monitoring or SWAP, as it must do under the Penal Code. There was no public hearing process on these fees. Local laws that require the Board of Supervisors to approve all fees, with some exceptions, at a properly noticed public hearing.

In August 2018 San Francisco cleared more than $32 million in locally controlled criminal justice debt affecting more than 21,000 individuals. But it has not refunded over $90,00 collected in pre-sentence report fees and $2,712,628 in monthly probation fees collected between 2012 – 2017.