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California First State to Eliminate Post-Prison Fees

Prior to the bill’s passage, Californians who were enmeshed in the criminal justice system were subject to a variety of fines and fees. The debts accumulated while in prison or jail did not disappear upon release. At least 45 individual fines and fees could be assessed from prisoners, two-thirds of which were administrative fees. The goal of these fees was to recoup some of the cost of the prisoner’s passage through the courts and penal system, and even though the original intent was not to administer further punishment through fees, the effect was decidedly punitive.

The majority of people who pass through the criminal justice system in California and elsewhere are already poor, and even a short stint in jail can wipe out savings and result in the loss of a job and home. The imposition of additional financial burdens upon prisoners on release only increased the difficulty of re­entry for people who are already under financial distress. Fees were often garnished from paychecks or levied from bank accounts. The result of these practices, according to research done across California, was to push people into underground economies and criminal activity to pay their debts.

San Francisco was the first jurisdiction in California to recognize the injustice in post-release fees. The city Board of Supervisors noted that officials often spent more money trying to collect the fees than they were able to bring in. The largest body of outstanding debt, about $15.8 million accumulated over six years in probation fees, was deemed only 9% collectable.

As a result, in September 2018, San Francisco passed a local ordinance to eliminate criminal justice fees within its jurisdiction. The total eliminated debt was approximately $33 million. Board President London Breed, who subsequently became mayor, used the occasion to urge a statewide fine and fee cancellation.

Los Angeles County soon followed San Francisco’s lead, and in 2019, Mayor London Breed and the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office co-sponsored a bill in the state Senate to eliminate criminal justice debt statewide. That bill became The Families Over Fees Act, which goes into effect on July 1, 2021.

Advocates claim that the elimination of fines and fees is essential for a prisoner’s successful reentry into society.

Considering that it is already nearly impossible to find work, rent an apartment, or get credit for a vehicle when a person gets out of prison, adding the burden of debt was a recipe for failure and recidivism.

Breed believes eliminating fees gives people exiting the criminal justice system a fighting chance to succeed. “We should be actively helping people to get their lives back on track after they have paid their debt to society ... For too long, we have extracted these fees from Black and brown families who are struggling to get by.”

The mayor joined Newsom and other state officials in expressing hopes that other states will follow California’s example and join the movement for fine and fee justice.