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San Francisco is the first city in the nation to launch a Financial Justice Project to assess and reform how fees and fines impact our city's most vulnerable residents.
Too often government programs and courts levy fines and fees on people, partly to generate revenue to balance public budgets. There is often an insidious unintended impact of this practice---to push people into poverty. These fines and fees can knock people down so hard they can’t get back up. Poor people and people of color are usually hit the hardest. These financial penalties can make government a driver of inequality, not an equalizer.
The Financial Justice Project was launched in November 2016 with the publication of this op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Financial Justice Project is housed in the Office of the San Francisco Treasurer, the entity in charge of revenue collection for the City and County.
Together we work with community organizations, advocates, city and county departments, and the courts to enact reforms that result in meaningful change for low-income San Franciscans
Read more about The Financial Justice Project here, and in the San Francisco Fines and Fees Task Force report published in our first year, available here.
San Francisco Ends “Poverty Penalty” - Clears All Driver's License Suspensions for People Who Missed Traffic Court Dates. Mayor London Breed and Treasurer José Cisneros announced in April 2019 that the City partnered with the San Francisco Superior Court to clear all outstanding holds on people’s driver’s licenses for missing a traffic court date. The San Francisco Superior Court had ended the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for Failure to Appear in traffic court, and in partnership with the Financial Justice Project identified more than 88,000 holds that had been filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) that had not been cleared. The courts lacked the resources and capacity to lift the holds that had already been filed. The Financial Justice Project partnered with the Mayor’s Budget Office to bring resources and capacity to the effort and remove this barrier to employment for thousands of local residents. “Missing your traffic court date has nothing to do with dangerous driving and everything to do with poverty,” said Anne Stuhldreher, director of the San Francisco Financial Justice Project, to the San Francisco Chronicle, “A lot of employers require a valid driver’s license to get a job. We can hold people accountable without putting them in financial distress.” The reform was also covered by KRON 4, NBC Bay Area and Univision. If your driver's license was suspended for failing to appear in the San Francisco Traffic Court, you can click here to find out what steps you can take.
The Financial Justice Project co-authors report: The Payback Problem: How Taking Parents’ Child Support Payments to Pay Back the Cost of Public Assistance Harms California Low-Income Children & Families. The report reveals that every year, hundreds of thousands of low-income children do not receive their full child support payment. That’s because low-income families only receive the first $50 of a parent’s monthly child support payment; the rest is redirected to pay back the cost of public benefits, like Medi-Cal and CalWORKs. In California, 70% of outstanding child support debt is owed to the government, not to children. In the report, we find that requiring parents to pay back public assistance takes valuable resources away from children living in poverty, disproportionately harms children of color, and sets low-income parents up to fail. The penalties that kick in when someone can’t afford to pay – including ten percent compound interest, suspending driver’s licenses and incarceration- are counterproductive and set low-income parents up to fail. Momentum is growing for reform, and several statewide bills have been introduced to make the system work better for low-income families. The report, and potential legislative changes, were featured in an op-ed authored by Financial Justice Project Director Anne Stuhldreher in the Los Angeles Times: Why Child Support in California Isn’t Going Where It’s Needed Most. The report is available here: The Payback Problem: How Taking Parents’ Child Support Payments to Pay Back the Cost of Public Assistance Harms California Low-Income Children & Families
San Francisco Public Library Votes to Eliminate Overdue Fines. On January 17th, the San Francisco Public Library Commission voted to eliminate fines on overdue materials. The vote followed testimony from San Francisco residents and librarians in response to a report released by The Financial Justice Project and the Library titled "Long Overdue: Eliminating Fines on Overdue Materials to Improve Access to San Francisco Public Library." Through interviews with librarians across the country, surveys of library staff and patrons, and analysis of library data, the report finds that overdue library fines restrict access and exacerbate inequality, create conflict between patrons and the library, and do not improve on-time return rates. Libraries nationwide are going fine-free, since fines keep low income people out of libraries and disproportionately impact low-income people. Currently, 11 percent of Bayview’s adult cardholders are blocked from accessing the library, significantly more than any other branch and more than three times as many as in high-income branches. The proposal will go to the Board of Supervisors next for a vote, likely as part of the June budget process. The recommended reform was covered by the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle and SF Weekly.
Financial Justice reforms spread across the Bay and Country. Alameda County became the second county in the nation to eliminate their administrative fees charged to people exiting jail and the criminal justice system. The East Bay Community Law Center wrote a great report entitled Pay or Prey and led the charge to repeal these onerous fees. Further across the country, Chicago started a Fines and Fees Task Force, modeled on the Financial Justice Project, that will issue recommendations for reforms in May. Congratulations to City Clerk Anna Valencia and all the women at COFI Power Pack who called for Task Force in their report Stopping The Debt Spiral. Stopping The Debt Spiral. Chicago NPR station WBEZ previously visited San Francisco to report on The San Francisco Financial Justice Project as a potential model for Chicago. The Las Vegas Sun called on Las Vegas to become the third city to launch a Fines and Fees Task Force, after San Francisco and Chicago.
San Francisco Superior Court makes it easier for low-income people to pay off traffic tickets. The San Francisco Superior Court announced new Ability To Pay guidelines for people who struggle to pay off traffic ticket debt. People whose incomes are below 250 percent of the Federal Poverty Line (about $60,000 for a family of four), can now have their ticket burden reduced up to 80 percent or more. The overall guidelines are described on the San Francisco Superior Court's new “Can’t Afford to Pay” web page.To apply, people can submit a new Ability To Pay form, and ask to have their traffic fines and fees reduced, based on their income. They can also request to pay off their fines on a payment plan, or by performing community service. A new informational flyer is available to walk people through the process, and a list of community organizations is available for people who would like support filling out the form. Translated versions of the form and flyer are available as reference guides in Spanish and Chinese. We are proud to partner with the courts any many community organizations to develop these new guidelines, which will make a big difference for people who are struggling. Here’s our announcement about the reforms.
San Francisco lifts $32 million in debt from criminal justice fees for 21,000 people On August 23rd, Mayor London breed announced the San Francisco Superior Court lifted more than $32.7 million in debt from unpaid criminal justice administrative fees off of 21,000 people. In July of 2018, San Francisco became the first county in the nation to eliminate all local administrative fees charged to people exiting the criminal justice system. When individuals exit jail or the criminal justice system, they are often assessed thousands of dollars in administrative fees that aim to recoup costs for the courts and government. These fees trap low-income people in cycles of poverty, increase the odds of recidivism, and are an ineffective source of revenue for the city and county. After the legislation passed, the San Francisco Public Defender and District Attorney successfully petitioned the court to waive all outstanding debt from these fees. The debt relief was featured by NPR’s KQED, the San Francisco Chronicle, and SFWeekly. To learn more about the legislation, see our report: Criminal Justice Administrative Fees: High Pain for People, Low Gain for Government.
The San Francisco Financial Justice Project Named One of Top Innovations in American Government. The Harvard Kennedy School announced that the San Francisco Financial Justice Project is one of seven finalists for the Innovation in American Government Award. Since its inception, the Program has received over 27,000 applications and recognized nearly 500 government initiatives. We are humbled and honored by this recognition. Read our newsletter to learn more about this award.
Momentum spreads throughout California to eliminate “high pain/low gain” fees charged to people exiting jail and the criminal justice system! The Financial Justice Project was proud to cohost a statewide meeting of over 90 people across California who are dedicated to Debt Free Justice and want to eliminate onerous criminal justice administrative fees. The coalition is made up of representatives of legal service organizations, community organizations, governmental officials, residents, and others. See here for materials that were shared at this meeting. The Financial Justice Project also published op-eds in the Sacramento Bee and the LA Times calling for an end to these administrative fees that mire people in debt and create barriers to re-entry.
Legislation to Eliminate Criminal justice Administrative Fees Receives Unanimous Vote by San Francisco Board of Supervisors. On May 22nd, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to become the first county in the nation to eliminate all local administrative fees charged to people exiting the criminal justice system. These fees trap low-income people in cycles of poverty, increase the odds of recidivism, and are a bad source of revenue for the city and county. These reforms were covered by the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and NPR’s KQED.
San Francisco Financial Justice Project releases new report: Criminal Justice Administrative Fees: High Pain for People, Low Gain for Government. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors votes May 22 on an ordinance to make San Francisco the first county in the nation to eliminate all locally-controlled fees assessed from people exiting jail or the criminal justice system. The report outlines how these fees pile debt onto people who cannot afford to pay them, create barriers to people’s successful re-entry, and are are a counterproductive, anemic source of government revenue. The legislation calls for the elimination of $15 million in debt from these fees that is owed by 20,000 individuals. The report is co-authored with The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. See our Press Release here and the report here.
San Francisco gives low-income people a break on city’s steep tow and boot fees. It costs San Franciscans over $500 on average to get their car back when it’s towed. Getting towed can be devastating for people with lower incomes, who sometimes must decide between paying their rent or paying to get their car back. Thanks to reforms passed by the SFMTA, fewer lower income San Franciscans will have to make this choice. The SFMTA Board voted unanimously on May 15 to deeply discount tow and boot fees for San Franciscans who earn below 200 % of the Federal Poverty Line (about $50,000 for a family of four). The board also voted to make it easier for lower-income people to pay off citations through payment plans or community service options. Read about the details of the reforms in our announcement and in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Financial Justice Project featured by Governing Magazine. The Financial Justice Project was featured by Governing Magazine as an “Innovative Idea Worth Stealing.” The article was published as part of a broader convening of city officials from around the country to share ideas about how government can be more data-driven, creative and effective in solving public problems. Read the article here.
Have SFMTA citations you can’t afford? For a limited time, enroll in a new low-income payment plan and get your late fees waived. SFMTA now offers a payment plan for eligible low-income customers. Before May 31st, all low-income customers can sign up for a monthly payment plan for a minimal fee, get more time to pay, and have the late fees removed. To find out if you’re eligible, see the MTA announcement here. To sign up for the payment plan, download the application at sfmta.com/PaymentOptions, and sign up at the SFMTA Customer Service Center at 11 South Van Ness Avenue.
San Francisco first in the nation to call for the elimination of criminal justice fees! Board of Supervisors President London Breed introduced legislation in February that would make San Francisco the first city and county in the nation to eliminate all locally-controlled fees to people exiting the criminal justice system. The fees, including paying for the cost of probation, electronic monitoring, and court usage fees, hit people with thousands of dollars of debt the moment they’re trying to get back on their feet. These fees are high pain- they result in barriers to a successful reentry- and low gain- they result in little revenue to the City and County. “This legislation is not about getting rid of consequences, said SF Financial Justice Project Director Anne Stuhldreher in the San Francisco Chronicle, “It’s about removing barriers to opportunity.” The draft legislation (available here) was also covered by and ABC7 News and other news outlets.
Chicago Moms and Grandmothers call for a local Financial Justice initiative! A Chicago nonprofit called Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) worked with mothers and grandmothers to survey families across the city. They found that debt, fines and fees are holding families back and called for the creation of a Chicago Financial Justice initiative. Read their recommendations here and their full report here.
SF MTA cuts fees & makes it easier for low-income people to pay off parking tickets! Thanks to reforms that received a unanimous vote in January by the Board of Directors of the SF Municipal Transit Authority (SF MTA), it will be much easier for people with modest means to pay off their tickets, meet their obligations, and get out from under the debt. See our announcement of the reforms here. You can see a full description of the reforms adopted by the SF MTA here.
Six month report to the San Francisco Fines and Fees Task Force. In October, 2017, the San Francisco Fines and Fees Task Force reconvened to share updates, progress, and next steps. Click here to read the full progress report. Much progress has been made AND much more work needs to be toward our collective goal to reform fines, fees, and financial penalties that disproportionately impact low-income San Franciscans and people of color.
The Financial Justice Project & The Color of Money. Financial Justice Project Director Anne Stuhldreher was proud to join New America’s Family-Centered Social Policy program for a conversation with Mehrsa Baradaran, author of The Color of Wealth, and a panel of municipal leaders on the front lines of pioneering new strategies to advance economic justice by reforming how government works--and who it serves. Check out a video of the event here.
SF Financial Justice Project op-ed in the Washington Monthly. Financial Justice Project Director Anne Stuhldreher describes how struggling cities increasingly rely on steep fines and penalties that take a toll on those who can least afford them. Check out the op-ed here.
The SF Financial Justice Projects presents on webinar: How Fines and Fees Strip Wealth from Low-income Communities. The Financial Justice Project joined our colleagues at PolicyLink and The Ford Foundation to share the the latest research and strategies that state and local leaders can use to ensure that fines and fees do not contribute to burdensome debt, housing and employment barriers, and imprisonment and recidivism for low-income communities and people of color. We explored strategies that preserve assets for low-income individuals, particularly people of color, which ultimately can help reduce the racial wealth gap. Click here to view the webinar. Thanks to the Asset Funders Network for hosting this webinar.
Financial Justice Project named “An Innovator That is Changing America.” Check out this CityPalooza profile on The Financial Justice Project’s work to right-size fines and fees for low-income residents.
Do the Math: Money Bail Doesn't Add Up for San Francisco The Financial Justice project releases showing that nonrefundable bail fees strip $10-15 million per year from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color and offers recommendations for reform. The report has been covered by KQED's California Report, in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and ABC7 news. Treasurer José Cisneros authored this “op-chart” in the San Francisco Chronicle to show the inequitable impact of money bail on struggling San Franciscans.
SF Fines & Fees Task Force report generates national, statewide, and local news coverage! Our report and recommendations for reform have sparked discussion across the country. The Nation highlighted our recommended reforms in an article entitled “These cities aren’t waiting for Trump to self-destruct, they’re fighting back now.” Our report was also covered on KQED’s California Report and in Bay Area print and TV news coverage.
The San Francisco Fines & Fees Task Force releases its Initial Findings and Recommendations! City and County departments and community organizations came together to develop recommendations to reform the inequitable burden of fines, fees, and financial penalties on low income San Franciscans and communities of color. The Financial Justice Project coordinated the Task Force. Here are links to the report, press release, and executive summary.
NPR's All Things Considered profiles The Financial Justice Project! Listen here to the story : "San Francisco program aims to make fines more fair for the poor”
The Financial Justice Project goes to Washington! Financial Justice Project Director Anne Stuhldreher was honored to join Melody Barnes and Reverend Starsky Wilson at The Arena Stage in Washington DC. for a 30-minute riveting discussion: The Price of Being Poor: How Fines and Fees Entrench Inequality and What Has to Change. You can watch the discussion here Their panel was part of a great day at the Aspen Institute’s Summit on Inequality and Opportunity. Reverend Starsky Wilson is the President and CEO of The Deaconess Foundation and co-chaired The Ferguson Commission. Melody Barnes is the Chair of the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions and is the former Director of The Domestic Policy Council under President Obama.
Juvenile Fees Are Self Defeating. The Financial Justice Project Director Anne Stuhldreher calls on California to stop charging fees to parents whose children our locked up in juvenile halls. It’s time to put families before fees, Stuhldreher writes. Check out her Sacramento Bee op-ed.
Check out "Charged"-- a profile of The Financial Justice Project The California Sunday Magazine
Treasurer José Cisneros announces The Financial Justice Project in this op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle. He writes: “I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable when our local government levies fines on people who cannot afford to pay them. Basically, we are guilty of a form of predatory government”
On January 31, Treasurer José Cisneros testified on at a statewide hearing on our system of bail. The Treasurer stated: “I firmly believe that when City and County resources are spent to keep people in jail, the decision should be based on the risk they pose to our communities, not on the money they have in their bank accounts.” Treasurer Cisneros also spoke to the need for increased oversight of the private bail bond system, the discriminatory nature of bail for low income communities, and the amount of wealth bail strips from San Francisco’s low income neighborhoods. Read the Treasurer’s full testimony here.
Director of Financial Justice Anne Stuhldreher describes how 30 states restrict the voting rights of Americans who owe fines and fees to the criminal justice system. Read this election day op-ed she co-authored in The Washington Post.
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