San Francisco is the first city in the nation to stop charging fees to incarcerated individuals. No longer will inmates have to pay fees for booking, ankle monitoring, alcohol testing, and costs related to probation.

According to the San Francisco Financial Justice Project, “People exiting the criminal justice system can be assessed dozens of fines and fees that can add up to thousands of dollars. At least 45 fines and fees can be assessed from people exiting our local criminal justice system, approximately 30 of which are administrative fees.”

For the relatively few affluent inmates, these fees did not add up to significant amounts, but it’s a different story for the vast majority of inmates, who are poor. These fees could trap them in the endless debt cycle of the criminal justice system.  The ordinance goes into effect as of July 1.

Debt Upon Debt

These fees do not include the fines people are ordered to pay when convicted of a crime. Such fees are in addition to punitive fines and are used to subsidize the costs of the criminal justice system. According to the Washington Post, the average person leaving prison today owes $13,607 in fees and fines. For the very poor, the amount might as well be $13 million.

Most of that debt is never collected. San Francisco charged $35 per day to an inmate wearing an ankle monitoring bracelet. That adds up to $1,050 a month!

The state of California levies a $300 charge for offenders who cannot pay their fines. When someone can’t pay their fees, they accrue interest and late payment charges, wracking up even more debt.

That might lead to having their driver’s license suspended if they don’t pay up, which leads to loss of employment or no hope of ever getting a job. Many people must decide between paying their fees and buying food or paying rent. Without question, it is people of color who suffer the most.

A Clear Positive Relationship

A 2016 study by political science professors at Vanderbilt University and the University of Memphis found that city government’s use of fines and fees “disproportionately harms black voters.”

It also found that cities with a high number of black members on their city councils relied much less on such fees for revenue purposes. The study notes the “clear, positive relationship” between black political representation and the imposition of such fees.

A 17 Percent Collection Rate

The truth is that San Francisco is not losing money by eliminating fees because the collection rate was so low. Approximately 20,000 people owe a collective $15 million in court debt, accumulated over the past six years. The collection rate is just 17 percent. Yes, 83 percent of these individuals simply cannot afford to pay this debt.

For example, the booking fees generated in San Francisco from 2012 to 2017 were over $1.1 million, but only $171,000 has been collected to date. Pre-sentence report fees totaled $922,000, but the amount collected was less than 10 percent, at $90,000.

Probation costs topped $15 million, but collections were $2.7 million, leaving $12 million outstanding. Because of these low collection rates, the city of San Francisco estimates it will lose only $1 million in revenue annually upon fee eradication.

Ideally, any revenue loss will be offset by having citizens who, free from strangling debt, will be able to obtain and maintain employment and thus become tax-paying, contributing members of society.

San Francisco is no anomaly – in fact, its collection rate is somewhat better than other parts of the country. Florida collects only 14 percent of the criminal justice system fees owed, while in Washington State, 50 percent of all fines meted out to felons are not collected, and these fines average just $2,500.

Mandatory State Fines and Fees

Even though San Francisco is eradicating city-imposed fees, that doesn’t mean those convicted of crimes won’t still face substantial, mandatory state fees. Such fees are supposed to fund more than 50 state programs.

However, San Francisco is definitely taking the right step and limiting some of the fee burden on those least able to pay. What we need is a complete overhaul of the way the criminal justice system raises revenue.

While people must pay for their crimes, the criminal justice system should not be looked at as a revenue-raising opportunity. That type of thinking didn’t work for red-light cameras or “speed traps”, and it hasn’t worked for our justice system either.