The Contra Costa County Costa Board of Supervisors recently placed a moratorium on certain criminal justice fees while it examines collection practices and their effects on low-income individuals.
Legal experts and advocates claim the 14 probation, public defender and Sheriff’s Custody Alternative Facility (CAF) fees — including those for public defense, probation supervision, drug tests, fingerprinting and electronic home detention or alcohol monitoring — are often unfairly levied on low-income individuals by Superior Court judges, despite the availability of fee waivers or adjustments, thus hampering their ability to successfully reenter society after being convicted of crimes.
“It’s our responsibility to support people to make sure they can pay their debt, and not come out worse in the whole process,” said local District III Supervisor Diane Burgis, who approved the indefinite moratorium with District V’s Federal D. Glover and District I’s John Gioia in a split 3-2 vote. District II’s Candace Anderson and District IV’s Karen Mitchoff were opposed.
The combined fees, collected by the court for the county, bring in an estimated $1.8 million a year to cover criminal justice system costs.
The supervisors plan to revisit their decision once additional information is collected, which may include analysis of fee payers, use of fee waivers and input from county judges, who often make the final determination about the ability to pay.
The shortage of currently available data prompted Mitchoff and Anderson to vote against the moratorium, pending future discussion.
Anderson indicated she’d like able individuals to continue paying the fees, but wants to see additional data.
“There are people who are being convicted of crimes in this county, subject to these fees, who should keep paying these fees,” Anderson said. “We have a fee waiver provision in place and I am trying to figure out why that is not working. Why can’t we fix that rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, saying, ‘no fees for all’?”
Mitchoff noted that it’s unclear how the $1.8 million hole in the county’s budget will be filled.
“We need the fiscal data back in order to understand and justify this decision,” Mitchoff said.
Gioia said the move allows the county to halt potentially damaging practices while it investigates.
Legal experts and re-entry advocates have long contended that the fees hurt the poorest the most, translate to large amounts of debt that reinforce poverty and impede a person’s ability to reintegrate into society. Additionally, there are emerging concerns about judges’ inconsistent approval of fee waivers for low-income individuals, and the court’s recent switch to a collection agency that is aggressively pursuing past unpaid fees, blindsiding individuals who were previously unaware of the bills and are unable to apply for fee waivers.
County officials did not disclose the typical number of fees levied against people re-entering society, but three years of supervised probation alone can run over $3,000, said Deputy Public Defender Ellen McDonnell.
Fee waivers and adjustment procedures are an option, but they are hardly a guarantee for needy individuals, said Aila Ferguson, a staff attorney for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.
Ferguson said the courts determined one of her clients had the ability to pay her fines on nine separate occasions, despite the fact that the woman had been homeless for years after fleeing domestic violence; was caring for 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds; and her convictions were for survival crimes, like petty theft and loitering.
“There was never a time she was able to pay, but over and over again, courts and court staff found her able to pay,” Ferguson said, noting that, at one point, the woman had $40 in her account and was still expected to pay the fees.
For others, current stipulations dictate that their paychecks are garnished, tax refunds intercepted or they are denied release from probation until all fees are paid, according to a letter submitted to the board of supervisors by a coalition of labor, advocacy and nonprofit groups.
“The majority of my clients are people who are affected by fines and fees of the criminal justice system,” said Andrea Crider, a staff attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid. “Some of those people were convicted 10 or 15 years ago. They have served their time. They have rehabilitated and gone on with their life. These collection agencies are now coming after them way later down the road.”
If the supervisors proceed with an outright ban, they will be following in the footsteps of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which recently eliminated locally imposed criminal justice fees, believing they are a barrier to re-entry; disproportionately affect low-income people and communities of color; and are not a great source of revenue.
“Eliminating these administrative fees will allow people who are formerly incarcerated to devote already limited resources to critical needs, like food, education, housing and health insurance for themselves and families,” said Ali Saidi, an attorney with the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office.
The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors will revisit its decision by the end of the year.
For more information on the moratorium decision, visit bit.ly/2kCEcPv.