Invoking the spirit of the holidays, social justice advocates pressed the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday to eliminate fees and some fines imposed by the criminal courts and Probation Department, characterizing them as a crippling burden for some families.
“Families are strapped with thousands of dollars of … fines and fees,” Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition told the board.
A report sent to the board Friday by Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai found that probation-reported court fees and fines averaged $120 million annually from fiscal year 2014-15 through FY2018-19. The Probation Department and courts collect less than 20 cents on the dollar, according to the CEO’s calculations.
The unpaid debt has grown to $1.8 billion over 50 years. About 20% of that total relates to active cases.
Urging the board to act quickly, a coalition of criminal justice advocates called Let’s Get Free L.A. released a report last month — Costs of Injustice: How Criminal System Fees Are Hurting Los Angeles Families — comparing the system of fees to debtors’ prisons, workhouses and convict labor.
That report estimates two-thirds of probationers in Los Angeles County make less than $20,000 annually — nearly 40% earn less than half that amount — and have little ability to pay what they owe.
Individuals who have met all the other conditions of probation but still have fees outstanding are often stuck on probation indefinitely and can incur new fees as a result. Even setting up an installment payment plan carries a small fee.
Hamai’s report lists 51 different probation and court fees and fines, ranging from a $10 citation processing fee to a $10,000 court-imposed restitution fine for a felony case. Fines are typically meant to be punitive, while fees are often intended to cover operational costs or fund related programs.
The ACLU report includes stories of people struggling to pay, including a homeless man who landed in jail as a result.
“I had a client in custody on a bench warrant for failure to pay $300 plus penalty assessments and court fees. My client was homeless and unemployed and clearly couldn’t pay. The judge violated his probation and gave him time in jail,” a public defender is quoted as saying. “When I asked to waive the fees, she sent them to collections. Sending fees to collections is so damaging for our clients trying to get back on track with their lives.”
The board eliminated juvenile detention fees last year and requested the CEO’s review of adult fees in April. In her report, Hamai suggested her team could work with other county departments to determine how reliant they are on criminal fines and fees for revenue and then work to phase some of them out over time.
“Data shows that the criminal justice system disproportionately affects the poor, and the responsibility of paying fines and fees can lead to devastating effects for these individuals,” Hamai concluded. “Review of and improvements to the system are warranted.”
However, Hamai also said the board should consider the risk of an economic decline and alternative funding sources for rehabilitation programs before making any decision.
McGill argued that program dollars are small in the scheme of the county’s $36 billion budget but loom large for the individuals and families trying to make monthly payments.
“It’s urgent that the board take action on those fees … and show what justice could look like,” McGill told City News Service.
San Francisco County eliminated many local administrative court fees last year. Statewide, Sens. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, have introduced SB 144, which would eliminate many administrative fees statewide.
Like Hamai, opponents of eliminating fees have raised concerns about a lack of funding for criminal justice programs. The Senate Committee on Appropriations estimated that the state and counties would lose hundreds of millions in annual revenue, leaving some positions unfunded and creating pressure on the general fund. More than $700 million of the $1.7 billion collected by the state is distributed to county and local governments.
The CEO’s report is available at file.lacounty.gov/SDSInter/bos/bc/1065611_121319.B101299.FinesandFees.bm.pdf. The ACLU report can be found at aclusocal.org/costsofinjustice.