Sophie Adler | Starting Over, Inc. Special Report
Around the country, community-based organizations and government agencies, following the leadership of directly impacted community members, are making great strides to minimize the harmful impact of criminal justice system fines and fees. These fines and fees can include anything from drug testing fees to restitution interest, to probation fees.
In 2020, San Francisco made all phone calls free for people inside jails. Also in 2020, Minneapolis implemented a program called “Lights On!” where people are given repair vouchers for a broken headlight or tail light instead of a criminal fine. These two examples demonstrate the success of community organizing efforts to eliminate criminal fines and fees, and instead create alternatives that better serve community needs. It is essential that as we eliminate fines and fees, we simultaneously build new systems of support and care that address the root causes of poverty.
Fines and Fees
Although fines and fees are often used interchangeably, they possess different legal meanings. A criminal fine is a monetary punishment, like a speeding ticket, whereas a criminal fee is used to reimburse the county or state and is not technically considered a “punishment.” However, their impact is the same. Both criminal fines and fees disproportionately punish and target low-income communities and communities of color. According to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights’ 2014 report, Who Pays?, the “vast majority (80%) of incarcerated individuals are low-income” and “nearly 40% of all crimes are attributable to poverty.”
Our prison system traps communities in a cycle of poverty and incarceration, and criminal fines and fees play a large role in this cycle. If people cannot afford to pay their criminal fines and/or fees, then they will likely be charged more fines and fees, have their driver’s licenses suspended, lose their voting rights and/or have their justice involvement prolonged through incarceration or an extended probation sentence.
The impacts of the costs of incarceration extend far beyond people inside. The Who Pays? report found that the economic costs of incarceration predominantly fall on women, particularly Black women, and families with loved ones inside. Due to the economic stress of paying criminal fines and fees, 65% of families struggled to cover their basic necessities such as housing and groceries, and 20% of families were forced to take out a loan.
Riverside County impacts on Black and Brown People
Here in Riverside County, the impacts of criminal justice system fines and fees reflect the findings from this national report. As is true nationally, Black and Brown community members in Riverside County are policed and incarcerated at rates higher than white people. In an ACLU report published in 2022, they found that “Black people make up 7.3 percent of the overall population of Riverside, but they account for 13.9 percent of adults charged by the Riverside DA between 2017–2020.”
One consequence of their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system is that Black and Brown people are more likely to face the negative impacts of criminal justice system fines and fees in Riverside County. Before the recent passage and enactment of AB 1869 in California, some people inside Riverside county jails were charged a daily criminal fee of $142 for their own incarceration. To clarify, Riverside County partially funded our jail system by charging people for their own incarceration.
Racial Disparities in Criminal Cases Filed by Riverside DA
40 Criminal Justice Fees Eliminated
This is just one example of the many criminal justice system fees recently eliminated by two new laws in California. The bills passed due to the extensive organizing and advocacy efforts by people with lived experiences. The bills eliminated a combined total of 40 criminal justice system fees, ranging from probation fees, to the cost of counsel, to electronic monitoring fees.
The Families Over Fees Act (AB 1869) and the Budget Trailer Bill (AB 177) both ended the collection of the stated fees and discharged all related debt. Both laws went into effect within the past year: AB 1869 on July 1st, 2021, and AB 177 on January 1st, 2022. Both AB 1869 and AB 177 will eliminate a tremendous amount of criminal justice debt for Californians.
A Call to Action
However, there is still much work to be done. In California, there remain over 50 criminal justice system fees associated with the criminal punishment system. As organizers in California have successfully eliminated a multitude of criminal justice system fees, we need to also fund and uplift services and organizations that empower and support low-income communities.
In Riverside County, Starting Over, Inc. provides criminal justice system fee support! If you or a loved one need assistance navigating criminal justice system fees, go to bit.ly/RivCoFees to fill out the google form for support. You can also contact email@example.com for more information or with any questions.
Fracassa, Dominic. “SF to allow free calls for inmates, no markups on products sold in jail.” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 Jun. 2019, https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/SF-to-allow-free-calls-for-inmates-no-markups-on-13974972.php. Accessed 31 Mar. 2022.
Haavik, Emily & Erdahl, Kent. “Hennepin County deputies to hand out repair vouchers, not tickets.” Kare 11, 29 Jan. 2020, https://www.kare11.com/article/news/local/hennepin-county-deputies-to-hand-out-repair-vouchers-not-tickets/89-69e1cc94-5622-404d-bb68-094704dc0890. Accessed 31 Mar. 2022.
DeVuono-Powell, Saneta, Schweidler, Chris, Walters, Alicia, & Zohrabi, Azadeh. Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families. Oakland, CA: Ella Baker Center, Forward Together, Research Action Design, 2015.Finkle, Carly. In(Justice) in Riverside: A Case for Change and Accountability. American Civil Liberties Union Northern California, 2022.