San Francisco Erases $32 Million In Criminal Fees For 21,000 People

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Above Photo: Flickr / Kevin T. Quinn

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Across the US, poverty makes a person vulnerable to harsh excesses of the criminal justice system. You can join us in taking action to decriminalize poverty here.

Everything from finding a job to renting an apartment can be challenging when a criminal record is disclosed. As a result, formerly incarcerated people often struggle to get back on their feet when they leave prison and many end up committing crimes that land them back in a cell.

To make matters worse, they’re often hit with thousands of dollars in administrative and other fees for their time spent in court and prison.

San Francisco is trying to reduce this financial burden by waiving criminal justice fees for 21,000 people, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The city had previously stopped issuing fees to formerly incarcerated people and this new announcement is an attempt to retroactively address the matter of financial hardship.

“We should be actively helping people to get their lives back on track after they have paid their debt to society,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said in a statement. “Garnishing the wages of people facing the challenging task of securing employment and housing can make that impossible.”

The new measure was decided by the San Francisco Superior Court after being petitioned by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office. Initially, lawyers thought that $15 million would be waived, but the court said that nearly $32 million will be erased.

San Francisco will lose out on around $1 million in annual revenue through this decision, but advocates say that the extracting fees from marginalized citizens was predatory and counter-productive.

In fact, nearly 80% of these fees are never paid anyways, signifying the financial difficulties facing the formerly incarcerated.

“These fees were not doing their job … These are people who have paid other consequences,” Anne Stuhldreher, director of San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project, told the Chronicle. “These fees are designed to recoup costs, and they don’t do that. We need to fund our criminal justice system in a more fair and just way than on the backs of poor people.”

The consequences of post-prison fees are similar to those of cash bail — both can cause extreme debt, evictions, medical problems, and recidivism.

Around the country, criminal justice reform advocates are fighting to end this “criminalization of poverty.”

And California is on the vanguard of the fight — a bill to end cash bail is currently heading to the governor.

“The Legislature took an important step forward in reducing the inequities that have long plagued California’s bail system,” California Governor Jerry Brown said in a statement.