SF: Legislation to eliminate fines, fees in criminal justice system

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN)

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed called Tuesday for the city to stop collecting fines and fees related to incarceration, fees that she said not only create an obstacle for formerly incarcerated people to support themselves, but are expensive for the city to collect.

Breed introduced legislation at Tuesday afternoon’s Board of Supervisors meeting that would eliminate many fees collected by the city, including probation fees, electronic monitoring fees, booking fees and pre-sentence alternative work program fees.

Recalling her time as executive director of the African American Art & Culture Complex, Breed said that she would receive notices to garnish wages of new employees for unpaid fines and fees, and would have to withhold up to half their paycheck. This would be highly discouraging for people trying to live honest lives after being convicted of crimes.

“Outside of those iron bars they’re still shackled with this financial debt and it follows them for years,” Breed said during Tuesday’s board meeting.

In an apparently preemptive move, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office announced Tuesday morning that it was eliminating two fines and fees that would be covered by the legislation: for electronic monitoring and for the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program, a community service program that serves as an alternative to incarceration.

Sheriff’s officials said in a statement that up to $39 was charged per day for electronic monitoring devices, though it was on a sliding scale and up to 70 percent of fees were already waived.

The sheriff’s department also charged $20 per day to participate in the work program. Breed argues that the fees are too costly to collect to add much to the city coffers, saying that only 17 percent of court-ordered criminal fees were paid to the city between 2012 and 2016.

But the sheriff’s department says the fees it eliminated today netted about $300,000 per year altogether that helped offset the sheriff’s department’s operations budget.

The fees the sheriff’s department stopped collecting today don’t include the most costly fees that would be eliminated by Breed’s legislation: adult probation fees, a one-time fee of $1,800. It also doesn’t include $135 booking fees or $150 pre-sentence reports.

The citywide legislation also can’t eliminate hefty fees imposed by the state, including courthouse construction costs, that can add hundreds of dollars to even very minor criminal citations.

San Francisco has been seeking to address excessive fines and fees in its criminal justice system for years. City Treasurer Jose Cisneros instituted a task force to study the issue in 2016 and a report released last year recommended not just local reform but statewide and nationally as well.

One particularly pernicious fee identified by the task force report was suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fees, which can escalate an inability to pay for a criminal offense if the person is caught driving with a suspended license.

San Francisco Superior Court had by then already eliminated such fees, the first court system in the state to do so.

Later that year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation removing the option for courts to suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets.

Breed said that her legislation would make San Francisco the first city to eliminate these kinds of fees in the country.

The legislation’s co-sponsor, Supervisor Malia Cohen, said she hopes that it will become a model nationwide.

“It’s about time San Francisco starts walking that talk,” Cohen said at a news conference at City Hall Tuesday to announce the legislation. “It’s time for San Francisco to really do something radical.”

(Copyright 2018 Bay City News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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