Research and Resources
Research and Resources
A growing number of government programs levy fines and fees on their residents, partly to generate revenue to balance public budgets. There is often an insidious unintended impact of this practice---to sentence people to 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 pernicious practices can strip wealth and resources from vulnerable communities. Financial penalties can make government a driver of inequality, not an equalizer.
48 states have increased criminal and civil court fees since 2010
Defendants are charged for a long list of government services that were once free — including ones that are constitutionally required. A state-by-state survey conducted by NPR found that:
- In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender.
- In at least 41 states, inmates can be charged room and board for jail and prison stays.
- In at least 44 states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision.
- And in all states except Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, there's a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear.
- Impoverished people sometimes go to jail when they fall behind paying these fees.
- In over half of states, people who owe Legal Financial Obligations to the courts can have their ability to vote taken away.
Also, according to the NPR investigative series, Guilty and Charged:
These fees — which can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars — get charged at every step of the system, from the courtroom, to jail, to probation. Defendants and offenders pay for their own arrest warrants, their court-ordered drug and alcohol-abuse treatment and to have their DNA samples collected. They are billed when courts need to modernize their computers. In Washington state, for example, they even get charged a fee for a jury trial — with a 12-person jury costing $250, twice the fee for a six-person jury.
- Of 15 states with largest prison populations, all have a practice of arresting people because they were unable to pay fines, fees, debts, or because they did not attend hearings about these debts, according to (The Poor Get Prison, Page 11)
- In 1991, 25 percent of inmates reported owing court-imposed costs, restitution, fines, and fees. By 2004, that number increased to 66 percent. Currently, it is estimated that 80 to 85 percent of inmates leave prison with this debt. (The Poor Get Prison, Page 10)
Criminal justice fines and fees place a heavy burden on families throughout California
- In California, uncollected court-ordered debt for traffic and criminal offenses add up to an estimated $10.2 billion, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.
- In California, 56 of 58 counties charge parents a nightly fee for every night their son or daughter spends locked up in Juvenile Halls. These fees vary wildly throughout the counties and are levied on some of the most vulnerable families in our state.
- Two thirds of people incarcerated in jails throughout California have not yet been convicted or crimes. They are simply there awaiting trial because they cannot pay bail. The cost of bail in California averages $50,000—five times the national average.
Four million Californians - 14% of adults - have had their drivers’ licenses suspended because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and fees
- Without a driver’s license, it’s hard to get a job. One study found that having a driver’s license was more important for finding steady work than a high school diploma.
- According to The Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights, these drivers license suspensions “make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, further impeding their ability to pay their debt. They harm credit ratings. They raise public safety concerns. Ultimately they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome.”
Steep fines and other financial penalties seem to be spreading when Americans can least afford them
There has been a stark increase in the number of Americans who get caught up in the criminal justice system, where fines and fees are rampant
- One in three Americans are arrested by age 23.
The increase in arrest rates and over incarceration has hit the African-American community the hardest
- One in four African-American children born in 1990 had an imprisoned father by the time he or she turned fourteen.
- One in two African-American women have a loved one who is incarcerated.
- Nationwide, one-third of African-American men in their twenties are under correctional supervision. African-American men are over six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, and Latino men are 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.
- Half of all African-American males are arrested by the age 23. One in four African-American children born in 1990 had an imprisoned father by the time he or she turned fourteen. And one in two African-American women have a loved one who is incarcerated.
In San Francisco, the burden of these fines and fees falls heavily on the African-American Community
In San Francisco, African-Americans make up less than 6 percent of the population, but:
- African-Americans are over HALF of people who are in the County jail;
- African-Americans account for nearly HALF of all people arrested for not paying traffic related fines or fees.
- Of people arrested for driving with a suspended license, 45 percent were African-American
- African-Americans represent more than 70% of people seeking legal assistance for driver’s license suspensions
- The Bay View/Hunter’s Point neighborhood in San Francisco, zip code 94124, has a relatively high rate of poverty (23.5%), the highest percentage of African-American residents in San Francisco (35.8%) and a driver’s suspension rate more than three times the state average
A coalition called Debt Free SF has been sounding the alarm
A coalition called Debt Free SF has been sounding the alarm about how fines and tickets hit vulnerable San Franciscans hard:
On towing costs:
- The cost of being towed in San Francisco has nearly tripled over the last five years, to $491.25, driven by a 432 percent increase in the administrative fees the Municipal Transportation Agency charges
- The cost of getting towed in San Francisco is two to three times higher than nearly every other city in the country including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles
On tickets for homeless people:
- Citations for anti-homeless offenses have increased threefold since 2011:
- Between October 2006 and March 2014, the SF Police issued over 50,000 citations for “quality of life” crimes, of which over 22,000 were for homeless people who were sleeping, sitting, or begging.
- 90 percent of homeless surveyed said they were unable to pay the fine for their last citation. In San Francisco, this results in a $300 civil assessment fee being added to the base fine, an arrest warrant, and a suspension of one’s driver’s license, according to the Coalition on Homelessness.
Additional Media and Resources
Ability to Pay
- The End of Debtors’ Prisons: Effective Court Policies for Successful Compliance with Legal Financial Obligations Conference of State Court Administrators
- Price of Justice. Judicial Council Summary (pdf>
- Instead of Jail, Court Fines Cut to Fit the Wallet. The New York Times
- Day Fines in American Courts: The Staten Island and Milwaukee Experiments. U.S. Department of Justice (pdf)
- Day-Fines: Should the Rich Pay More? Review of Law & Economics
- The Ventura Day-Fine Pilot Project. The Justice Management Institute (pdf)
- Tools and Guidance for Determining and Addressing an Obligor’s Ability to Pay. Michigan Supreme Court State Court Administrative Office (pdf)
- Statewide AB-42 Bail Reform Bill
- Assessing the Impact of Bail on California’s Jail Population. PPIC (pdf)
- Bail Fail: Why the U.S. Should End the Practice of Using Money for Bail. Justice Policy Institute (pdf)
- In New Orleans, Making Defendants Choose Bail or Jail is Really Expensive. Five Thirty Eight
- Fines, Fees and Bail: Payments in the Criminal Justice System that Disproportionately Impact the Poor. White House Council of Economic Advisers (pdf)
- California lawmakers want to reform a bail system they say ‘punishes the poor for being poor’. Los Angeles Times
- California’s bail system punishes the poor, and it’s time for the government to do something about it. Los Angeles Times
- California Considers Ditching Cash Bail System to Help Poor. CBS
- Seeking a better bail system, SF turns to computer algorithm. San Francisco Chronicle
- Moving Beyond Money: A Primer on Bail Reform. Criminal Justice Policy Program, Harvard Law School (pdf)
- Draft Bail and Release Work Group Report-the County of Santa Clara. Santa Clara Bail and Release Workgroup (pdf)
- San Francisco Justice Reinvestment Initiative: Racial and Ethnic Disparities Analysis for the Reentry Council. The W. Haywood Burns Institute
Criminal Justice Fines and Fees
- Punishing Poverty: The High Cost of Probation Fees in Massachusetts. Prison Policy Initiative
- Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design
- Collaborative Reform Initiative. An Assessment on the San Francisco Police Department. U.S. Department of Justice (pdf)
- Court Costs Entrap Nonwhite Poor Juvenile Offenders. New York Times
- Police Collected Fines, Fees and Forfeitures: How Does Your City Rank? Forbes
- SF judge explains why 66,000 arrest warrants were discarded. SF Gate
- The Long-Term Costs of Fining Juvenile Offenders. The New Yorker
- Probation Fees hit poor the hardest, says report. Common Wealth Magazine
- Improving California’s Criminal Fine and Fee System. California Legislative Analyst Office (pdf)
- High Pain, No Gain: How Juvenile Administrative Fees Harm Low-Income Families in Alameda County, California. University of California, Berkeley
- Fines, Fees and Bail: Payments in the Criminal Justice System that Disproportionately Impact the Poor. Council of Economic Advisors Issue Brief (pdf)
- Fines, Fees and Financial Insecurity Webinar. PolicyLink
- Making Families Pay: The Harmful, Unlawful, and Costly Practice of Charging Juvenile Administrative Fees in California. University of California, Berkeley
- State-by-State Court Fees. NPR
- Guilty and Charged. NPR
Driver’s License Suspensions
- Stopped, Fined, Arrested: Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California. East Bay Community Law Center (pdf)
- Not Just A Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California (pdf)
- Driver’s License suspensions push poor deeper into poverty, report says. Los Angeles Times
- California Governor Brown: Driver’s license penalty harms the poor. Daily News
- Economic Disparity Is Seen in California Driver’s License Suspensions. New York Times
- Low-Income Drivers Sue California DMV for Illegally Suspending Licenses. ACLU of Northern CA
- CA Legal Orgs Bring First-of-its-kind Lawsuit Challenging Harmful Driver’s License Suspension Policies. ACLU of Northern CA
- The Government Wants to Take Away My License Because I’m Poor. I Need It to Survive. ACLU of Northern CA
- Driver’s License Suspensions Still a Problem for People Too Poor to Pay Exorbitant Traffic Fines. ACLU of Northern CA
Transportation Related Fines and Fees
- All-Door Boarding Evaluation Final Report. San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (pdf)
- When It Comes to Fare Enforcement, Muni’s Inspectors Rarely Stray Far From HQ. Hoodline
- SF Board of Supervisors Fare Evasion Fine Structure. San Francisco Board of Supervisors (pdf)
- Proof-of-Payment Study, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (pdf)
- Next Stop: Justice. Race & Environment at the Center of Transit Planning. POWER, Data Center and Urban Habitat (pdf)
Quality of Life Citations
- Punishing the Poorest. Coalition on Homelessness
- We don’t want to jail people for being poor. The San Francisco Chronicle
- SF courts ignoring thousands of quality-of-life citations. The San Francisco Chronicle
- California’s New Vagrancy Laws. The Growing Enactment of Enforcement of Anti Homeless Laws in the Golden State. University of California, Berkeley
- Processing ‘Quality of Life’ Violations. San Francisco Legislative Analyst Report
- San Francisco’s Homeless Population Punished More Than Other Cities, Report Finds. Huffington Post