San Francisco brushes off costs of court fee reduction program

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San Francisco's program to reduce court fees and fines on its poorest citizens could serve as a case study for other cities.

The city launched the program last year, recognizing that the burden of accumulating fines and fees were falling on its poorest residents, said Anne Stuhldreher, director of the Financial Justice Project in the Treasurer and Tax Collector’s office for the City and County of San Francisco.


Stuhldreher spoke on a panel at the Government Finance Officers Association’s national conference in Los Angeles Monday that evaluated methods of raising revenue that don’t overly burden a municipality's poorest residents.

The San Francisco City and County Board of Supervisors approved legislation last summer to eliminate the administrative court fees people are forced to pay after being released from jail, which ran up to several thousand dollars.

After the legislation was implemented city officials discovered that more than 21,000 individuals in San Francisco had accumulated more than $32 million in debt from these fees. That prompted the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and District Attorney’s Office to lodge a complaint that would make the legislation retroactive. A Superior Court judge found in favor of the complaint ordering in August that the outstanding fees be waived.

No city wants to give up a revenue source and San Francisco was no different, Stuhldreher said.

But when city officials started evaluating reducing the fees, they discovered that because many of the people quite simply could not afford to pay, the city was receiving less than 20% of what was owed and the city was expending money to try to collect. The new program established a sliding scale based on ability to pay.

“These fees were not doing their job. These people paid other consequences, including serving jail time and paying victim restitution,” Stuhldreher said. “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.”

By eliminating the fees, the city estimates it will lose about $1 million annually. The financial hole will be filled from other parts of the city’s budget, which totaled $11.05 billion in fiscal 2017-18.

“A number of other counties around the country are starting to learn a lesson from San Francisco,” said David Eichenthal, a managing director with PFM Group Consulting in New Orleans.

PFM launched the Center for Justice & Safety Finance in January after it was awarded a $1.2 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to work with county governments seeking to reduce or eliminate their reliance on criminal fines and fees as a revenue source.

“Data has shown that not just San Francisco, but nationally many people charged these fees are already low income,” Eichenthal said.

PFM has been working with municipalities across the country to evaluate whether they can change the fee structure without hampering the revenue stream. It aims to have developed a model that cities and counties could follow by next May, Eichenthal said.

In June, it will begin working with three new municipalities including Dallas County, he said.

As for San Francisco, a task force has been established to look at 50 funds and fees that people can be charged in California to see where other reforms would be appropriate. “You can be charged $400 in California just for going through a stop sign,” Stuhldreher said.

When people don’t pay by the deadline, the amount can double, the resident can have his or her driver’s license revoked, making it can make it harder to get into housing without identification,” Stuhldreher said. "Plus, a significant number of people who lose their driver's license lose their job, because they don't have transportation to work."

The fines end up exacerbating social problems like unemployment and homelessness that the city is trying to lessen, she said.

“That seems like a lose-lose,” she said.

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State and local finance San Francisco City & County California
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