San Francisco Moves to End Nickel-and-Diming of Criminal Defendants

San Francisco city leaders on Tuesday announced an effort to end many fines and fees charged to criminal defendants. Pictured, from left to right, are City Treasurer and Tax Collector Jose Cisneros, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, City Supervisor Malia Cohen, and Board of Supervisors President London Breed. (Maria Dinzeo/CNS)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – San Francisco made history Tuesday by becoming the first city in the nation to introduce a law to eliminate many of the fines and fees that come with being arrested, including fees for probation costs, booking and ankle monitors.

At a press conference on the sunny steps of City Hall, Board of Supervisors President London Breed said the fees disproportionately impact minority communities in the city and prevent people who have just been released from jail from leading productive lives.

“These are fees that create barriers to re-entry, just when people are working to turn their lives around. Many people don’t know the toll these fees have on our communities,” Breed said, adding she knows far too well how ruinous they can be.

“I’ve had to help family members pay for these fees,” she said, noting she’s also had to garnish the wages of some of her employees when she was the executive director of the African American Art and Culture Complex.

“Their checks would be cut sometimes in half. That’s discouraging. That is discouraging for someone who takes a lot pride in getting that first paycheck and working hard in the community and trying to turn their life around,” she said. “This is just a step forward in the right direction. This will take the burden off of so many people that are coming out of our criminal justice system, sometimes for crimes they committed and sometimes for crimes that they did not commit.”

According to a fact sheet from the San Francisco public defender, adult probation fees run about $1,800 up front, electronic monitoring is $125 to sign up and $35 a day. Booking fees are $135, and a presentence report fee is $150. There is also a $150 fee for the “Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program,” where inmates agree to work 8 to 10 hours a day on community service projects in lieu of detention.

All of these fees should be abolished, said Breed, who is one of the front-runners in San Francisco’s 2018 mayoral election. The fees fund city departments, but they don’t generate much revenue, she said.

“These fees are actually incredibly costly to administer,” Breed said. “And because many are unable to pay these fees, the city only collects anywhere between 9 and 15 percent of the fees administered.”

She added, to applause, “They are counterproductive, problematic sources of revenue borne on the backs of our most vulnerable population of San Francisco, and we’re not having it anymore.”

Sheriff Vicki Hennessey also announced Tuesday that her department will no longer charge electronic monitoring or SWAP fees.

She said the department has been charging inmates $20 a day to remove graffiti or plant trees, and $39 per day on a sliding scale for pretrial and post-sentencing ankle monitors. Electric monitoring brings in $200,000 a year and SWAP accounts for $100,000, and both go toward offsetting the cost of the programs.

In a statement, Hennessy said, “While up to 70 percent electronic monitoring fees are already waived, as a matter of principle, the Sheriff’s Department has agreed to eliminate electronic monitoring fees altogether under this proposed legislation. The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department has and will continue to support every effort that helps individuals move beyond their offenses and live successful lives.”

Such people would include outreach worker Joseph Williams, who said he is struggling to put his life back together while paying off his criminal fees.  “I’m working hard to move forward in a positive way in my life. No matter how hard I try the debt feels crushing,” he said.

Williams, who has two children, said he’s taken on two extra jobs just to pay his fees.  “I don’t get to see my children as often because I’m working these two extra jobs. I feel like they don’t get the quality of life they deserve.”

Public Defender Jeff Adachi called the move to eliminate the fees a “new day” in San Francisco.

“These fines and fees can follow you around for the rest of your life. Many of these fines and fees total more than $10,000, if you can imagine that. Most of them have absolutely nothing to do with the crime or making restitution to the victim,” he said. “The idea that somehow people should fund their own persecution is really insane.”

While some portion of fines and fees, like traffic tickets and other vehicle-related fines, go into the state’s Immediate and Critical Needs Account – which is meant to fund the construction of new courthouses – the fines and fees up for elimination are city and county fees, the revenue from which does not go to the courts, a point confirmed by a San Francisco Superior Court representative on Tuesday.

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