California Is Considering Ending Criminal Court Fees and Wiping out Billions in Debt

By Jacob Rosenberg, Mother Jones

Susann Prautsch/Getty

Susann Prautsch/Getty

Three years ago, during Brandon Greene’s first week working as a lawyer in a new clinic affiliated with the East Bay Community Law Center, he was handed a stack of cases to review. Each involved a client who was struggling to pay down the fines and fees that easily accumulate in California’s criminal justice system. It was his job to help. A handful of the cases were so old that he couldn’t find current contact information for the clients. He quickly realized that “some of those folks,” even if he did reach them, “could not get back on their feet at all”  because of their debt. “The folks who were being affected were mostly indigent,” he said. “Everything costs money. Every program costs money. And a lot of folks can’t afford to pay these things.”

Now, there’s a chance they won’t have to.

This year, state Sen. Holly Mitchell introduced SB 144—the Families Over Fees Act—which would eliminate many administrative fees and discharge billions in debt, according to estimates from backers of the bill.

Stephanie Campos-Bui, a supervising attorney with the policy advocacy clinic at the University of California-Berkeley, joined forces with Greene to come up with policy solutions. First, she had to understand the problem. “You ask [a county], what’s your fee schedule? What can a person potentially be charged? And they can’t even tell you,” she said. For nearly two years, she’s tried to answer it herself.

The work was complex. Fees vary by county and are often byzantine. They can manifest as a $30-a-day charge for an ankle monitor in San Mateo, or more than $1,000 in Butte County for court-mandated reports, or $55 per court-mandated drug test in San Luis Obispo. The idea is that “using” a government service costs money. As Campos-Bui combed through statutes with her collaborators at Debt Free Justice California, they found “100 to 150 different sections of the code that allowed counties to charge fees.”

“From booking and arrests, to representation by a public defender, to supervision on probation: At every point, someone can be charged a fee for that particular service,” she said.

Campos-Bui, along with sponsors from Debt Free Justice California, has been using that data to show California officials the extent of the problem.

“The research has really been important,” Greene said. “These were things that impact the communities have known forever. But unfortunately, people just didn’t believe [it]…Then we had the data.”

They contributed to an analysis of San Francisco that found from 2012 to 2018, more than 20,000 people racked up more than $15 million in debt because of burdensome local fees, and at least $12 million in debt from just one fee—a $50 monthly probation charge—went uncollected. The 2016 collection rate for that probation fee was only 9 percent. In San Francisco alone, eliminating fees and lingering debt would cost the city $1 million in revenue, but it would also erase $32 million in debt for thousands of residents.

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Olivia McDowellComment