Currently, a person who has served time in the legal system can face mounting fees imposed by the criminal justice system. Even after the individual has completed a jail term, those fees can keep them from being able to move on with a productive life. The fees have become crippling to many ex-offenders, one of the main reasons Los Angeles seeks to abolish California court fees.
A Vicious Cycle of Debt
In Los Angeles County, a person with a 3-year probation term accumulates more than $5,500 in supervision fees alone. These fees can put the individual into a vicious cycle of debt that can seriously impede their ability to move on with their lives.
The money they owe can hurt their credit score, make it harder for them to find a home and a job, and make it more difficult to even open a bank account. If they do find a job, their wages may be garnished, their bank accounts levied, or their tax refunds intercepted to pay their court debt.
Every day, hundreds of thousands of Californians face bills for thousands of dollars in fees. The money is for a multitude of fees attached to every stage of the criminal system, including public defender fees, probation supervision fees, fees for mandatory drug tests, and electronic ankle monitors.
When people can’t afford to pay off all their fees immediately, they are billed for even more, including installment account fees, collection fees, interest, and assessments for “failure to pay.” The fees are imposed in addition to the fines, labor, and/or incarceration that the court assigns to a convicted person as punishment. And the cycle continues.
An Unreliable Source of Income
These administrative fees are intended to generate revenue for government programs. However, the court fees are an unreliable source of revenue. People who have been incarcerated or are on probation cannot afford to pay the fees, given their challenges and struggles in finding a steady, decent paying job.
Fee collection rates are low, and counties sometimes end up spending more to collect fees than they bring in. For example, in 2017, Alameda County had a collection rate of only 4% for probation supervision fees. The county lost $1.3 million dollars trying to collect court-ordered debt.
The Movement Toward Abolishing Fees
The momentum for criminal fees reform has been building for some time. In 2016, California enacted legislation ending juvenile administrative fees statewide. In 2018, San Francisco repealed all county-authorized fees and waived over $30 million in outstanding criminal justice debt owed by 21,000, mostly low-income, San Franciscans. In September 2018, the Alameda County Public Protection Committee recommended that the Board similarly eliminate all county-authorized criminal fees, and Los Angeles County eliminated its public defender registration fee in 2017.
Most recently, State Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) has introduced Senate Bill 144, the Families Over Fees Act, which would eliminate a wide range of fees. The proposed bill is sponsored by the Debt Free Justice California coalition. The coalition is working to convince state legislators to pass SB 144 with the goal of permanently blocking all California counties from imposing court fines and fees.
In February, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to eliminate most court-related fines and fees, including probation, but have not followed through. Three other counties in the Bay area—San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa—have passed similar measures in the past two years. However, the Los Angeles courts have continued to collect probation fees and other court-related debts.
The Debt Free Justice California coalition has sent a letter to the county’s Superior Court, demanding that it “immediately implement the Board of Supervisors’ Feb. 18 motion requiring that Los Angeles County end the imposition of new, and collection of past, county-imposed court, probation and sheriff’s fees, and discharge past related debt.”
Repealing Fees – Improved Prospects
The Debt Free Justice California coalition states that eliminating administrative fees will allow formerly incarcerated people to devote their limited resources to critical needs like food, education, housing, and health insurance. Repealing criminal fees will also result in improved employment prospects for formerly incarcerated people and put more money in the pockets of economically insecure families, aiding successful reentry and reducing California’s recidivism rate.
Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney
Please reach out to the Law Office of Ronald G. Brower if you are facing criminal charges. Attorney Brower has the expertise to help you achieve a successful outcome with your case.