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I Served My Prison Time. Why Do I Still Have to Pay?

Imagine the kind of bill you might receive upon leaving the hospital for an emergency room visit or after giving birth — the line items inscrutable and seemingly out of your control (did you really agree to all those tests?), the number of zeros far more voluminous than you could have anticipated.

Now imagine getting that same kind of bill on your first day out of jail. You’ve served your time and, theoretically at least, repaid your debt to society. But upon discharge you are handed a bill for things like HS BF County ($125), PenSB1773 2/10 ($107.80), State Penalty ($377.30). You are behind on your bills before you’ve even begun your new life.

Such is the experience of people all across the United States, predominantly people of color who leave jail with what are called criminal justice administrative fees.

Until now.

San Francisco is leading a campaign that could bring a wave of change. More and more counties are ending the practice of saddling prisoners with administrative fees, and many are also forgiving the debt of those who have been charged. In August 2018, the County of San Francisco forgave $32 million of those fees. Alameda County followed.

Just this month, a California state bill — SB144, the Families Before Fees Act — was introduced by State Senators Holly Mitchell and Robert Hertzberg. During a news conference, Senator Mitchell said the legislation was necessary “to remove economic shackles on those who already paid their debt to society” because the shackling “makes reintegration in their communities, our communities, almost impossible.”

Fees and fines are not the same thing. People found guilty of crimes may also be ordered by a court to pay restitution to their victims and perhaps to pay fines related to their crimes.

Fees are different. They are purely administrative — developed by counties and other entities to recoup costs, largely during the incarceration boom in the 1990s. The most common fees are monthly probation fees and fees for electronic monitors. As reported by the Brookings Institution last month, these fees are measurably more frequently applied and cost more in cities with a higher proportion of African-Americans.

On the surface, such fee elimination might seem straightforward. Take San Francisco: The Financial Justice Project found that over the past six years, $57 million in criminal justice administrative fees were charged and an average of only 17 percent were recouped.

In other words, it was highly ineffective as a revenue source, and as a moral force it was downright depraved.

A vast majority of people leaving jail or prison had no jobs. Those who did earned a median annual income of $2,500 per year. A report by the Ella Baker Center found that in 63 percent of cases, relatives, 83 percent of whom were women, were paying court-related costs associated with conviction.

José Cisneros, the San Francisco treasurer and tax collector, said: “You cannot get blood from a stone. We must find more fair and just ways to fund our courts and criminal justice system that do not balance the books on the backs of those who cannot afford it.”

Los Angeles County is expected to go the way of San Francisco. The county’s fiscal case is a no-brainer: In 2017, it spent $3.9 million to collect $3.4 million in fees.

The economic and moral argument for forgiving this debt might seem obvious, but the process that the County of San Francisco pioneered for getting there was anything but that. It’s an instructive case study in how local government leadership has to work collaboratively to make things happen.

Gather the data
The county had to get an understanding of what fees were being charged by whom, which fees were authorized by the county and what impact the fees had on total revenues. As is so often the case in complex systems, only the people burdened by the debt had a full picture of what was going on.

The coalition that came together on this issue submitted a Public Records Act request to the San Francisco Superior Court and examined the fines and fees charged to clients in their Clean Slate program, which helps people expunge their criminal records so that they can start a new life more easily. The coalition found that over six years, more than 265,000 fines and fees, totaling almost $57 million, had been charged to former inmates. Of that total, $20 million was locally controlled and authorized by San Francisco County.

And the fees weren’t generating revenue on a meaningful scale. More than half of the fees the legislation eliminated had revenue projections so low that they weren’t included in the city’s budget forecast. In other words, while 20,000 residents of San Francisco walked around with the weight of $15 million in debt on their backs, the city wasn’t even holding its breath.

Gather the people
Once the coalition had the data, it had to get a wide range of local leaders on board for the legislation. Anne Stuhldreher, the first director of financial justice for the City and County of San Francisco, explained that her most convincing argument was actually the simplest: “We took one person’s bill from office to office and showed it to people.”

Some officials’ jaws dropped. Not Mayor London Breed’s. “Growing up in a community that was disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system, this issue was familiar to me,” she said.

This countywide legislation and the state bill have been championed by women of color — a clue to how demographic shifts in political leadership can directly affect citizens’ pocketbooks and potential.

The common-sense follow-up question for government officials was O.K., but how much is eliminating these fees going to cost? The Mayor’s Budget Office, after poring over the data, concluded that the cost would be $1 million a year in forgone revenue, spread across several city and county departments.

It was also widely acknowledged that lightening the burden on the recently incarcerated would help everyone — the Public Defender’s Office, the Adult Probation Department, the Controller’s Office — reach more of their civic goals. After all, the aim is to support former inmates to become productive citizens. Forgiving the debt not only made individuals’ lives easier but also helped the city run more successfully.

Don’t take the easy way out
At various times in the process, people suggested softening the legislation: Why not just reduce the fees? Or base them on ability to pay?

But the coalition that had come together stuck to its vision. Simply put, the fees were designed to recoup costs but were never going to do that, even if they were adjusted on an ability-to-pay basis. A vast majority of those leaving jail simply couldn’t pay anything.

Ms. Stuhldreher summed up: “These fees are not meant to be punitive, but in reality they are. They add an additional layer of punishment to people who have already gone to jail, paid fines and may even be paying victim restitution.”

In addition, the emotional toll of debt is disproportional: Whether you owe $300 or $3,000, you experience stress if you don’t have it. The mental load of having debt is significant and can create all kinds of ripple effects in a person’s life.

The post-incarceration period is famously fragile. People often don’t have stable housing, social networks or jobs. People with unpaid fees are unable to clear their records, which can make it hard to even get a job. Research shows that fees can push people back toward underground economies and even to the criminal activity that got them in trouble in the first place.

And — harder to quantify — the promise of being able to do things right for the people you love is stripped away. Angelique Evans’s biggest fantasy after getting out of the women’s prison in Chowchilla after a decade was that she would buy her son’s back-to-school clothes. When she got a call that she had a mountain of fees to pay back (a total surprise to her), she knew it wouldn’t be possible. “I don’t blame anybody for my actions,” she said. “I served my time. But I want to move forward. I want to do right by my son. But how can I move forward with these fees hanging over me? It made me feel so low.”

Ms. Evans has poured herself into the New Way of Life Re-entry Program, most recently as a policy fellow. She has been, as she put it, “caught by the policy bug,” even traveling from Los Angeles to Florida to pound the pavement in the midterm elections for Amendment 4, which restored the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions. (It is now under threat.) Eleven months out of prison, she told me: “My heart is with SB144. I’ve been through the struggle. I hate to see the women coming home, simply trying to survive, trying to do the right thing and getting pulled under by these fees.”

Ms. Evans isn’t alone. There is a wide range of organizations behind the new statewide legislation. Ms. Stuhldreher reports that her office is getting at least a call a week from other places that want to do what San Francisco County has done. Cities Addressing Fines and Fees Equitably, introduced by the National League of Cities and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, is funding technical assistance to six city governments seeking to reduce or eliminate their reliance on fines.

Theresa Zhen, a staff attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, who is helping coordinate the advocacy effort for SB144, is already declaring victory. “The fact that even the opposition to the bill admits that it’s philosophically right is huge,” she said. “We’re finally having the real conversation: that courts have been built on the backs of the poor.”

Ms. Evans, who has been a part of “the system,” as she put it, since she was 3 years old and ended up in foster care, got a much better surprise call a few days ago: She is officially discharged from probation. “I cried,” she said, the emotion palpable in her voice. “I couldn’t believe that I was free of the system. I worked for it. Really hard.”

Only one thread remains: Ms. Evans still owes $3,000 in criminal justice administrative fees.

Courtney E. Martin
The New York Times

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