UPDATED: This story was updated on Feb. 19, 2020, at 11:00 a.m., to reflect the events of the LA County Supervisors’ meeting on Feb. 18.
On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to end the use of dozens of criminal justice system fines and fees in LA that disproportionately burden low-income families and communities of color.
The costs levied against people who come into contact with the criminal legal system — from jails, to courts, to probation — include public defender fees, probation supervision fees, penalty assessments, lab fees, drug test fees, various processing and service charges and surcharges, and more. Some of the largest charges come from probation supervision fees, which can reach beyond $5,000. Even community service — meant to be an alternative to incarceration and court fees — requires payment to participate.
In April 2019, the board approved a motion from Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl that called for a report back on the county’s collection of fines and fees.
Last November, before that report could be completed, a coalition of community organizations called Let’s Get Free LA, presented the supervisors with a 30-page report calling on the board to follow through with the abolition of justice fines and fees.
The group argued that the current system entraps people in a cycle of debt and criminalization, all for a minimal financial benefit to the county. (LA County Probation, for example, successfully collects just 3.8 percent of the criminal justice debts it imposes on the adults under its supervision.)
Then, a month later, the county’s own report revealed that since 2014, LA officials were able to collect just 4 percent of the more than $100 million in court-related debts Angelenos acquired each year. And the county expended “significant amount of resources attempting to collect the fees with little success.”
Tuesday’s motion directs the probation department and other relevant county officials to “immediately” stop collecting on those fines and fees that the county has jurisdiction over, and to release all related outstanding debts.
“While the fees are not supposed to be punitive or restorative but are simply supposed to help counties recoup costs without being excessive or unfair,” the motion notes, “they can quickly add up to thousands of dollars for a single person, and become due while a person is incarcerated and upon their release.”
On Tuesday, before the board, advocates and community members called on LA County to make that important move, telling personal stories of the burdens that county-imposed debt created.
Van Nguyen, a member of Homeboy Industries, described the burden of $22,000 in court fines and fees, on top of the two life sentences he received at age 16. “I remember being pretty much sentenced to die in prison, and the only thing I was concerned about was … how I would pay this amount of money,” Nguyen told the board before the vote. Despite receiving a “second chance” after his youthful crime, he said the debt still hung over his family. “It is too overwhelming for me to think about,” said Nguyen. “I don’t know exactly how much I still owe, but it is such a burden, not just to me, to my whole family.”
The Youth Justice Coalition’s Kim McGill told the board that it was unconscionable that in the 21st Century, “families still have to choose between core expenses,” including food and healthcare, and paying court fees.
After McGill, a public defender illustrated the point by telling of one woman who had to go without critical dental care, in order to stay out of jail. “Our client had to choose between paying court fees and dental treatment,” the attorney said. “With the threat of incarceration, she chose to forego that dental treatment. When she arrived at the court date to pay her fees, she had several teeth missing, and was forced to spend what little money she had on court fees to avoid jail.”
That woman is one among many Angelenos forced to go without in order to pay the fees that will keep them out of jail, added the attorney. “Public defenders have been telling these stories for years.”
LA County joins Alameda County and San Francisco in cutting justice fines and fees out of the local government funding equation.
“This Board has taken bold steps to move away from a purely punitive criminal justice system model that negatively impacts public safety, towards a “care first, jail last” model, which prioritizes the health, well-being, and resource needs of individuals to achieve increased stability and public safety for all of Los Angeles County’s communities,” Supes Solis and Kuehl wrote in their motion. “Eliminating the County’s criminal system administrative fees is the next step in implementing the Board’s vision by enhancing the economic stability of low-income communities and communities of color.”
The LA County supes took the first important step toward the goal in 2017, when they eliminated fines and fees in the juvenile system and forgave families’ outstanding $89 million in juvenile probation debt, at the urging of the Youth Justice Coalition and other advocates.
That same year, state lawmakers pushed through a landmark bill, SB 190, which banned all 58 counties from charging for kids’ involvement in juvenile justice system. The law did not block counties from continuing to chase old debts from years past, however. Some counties are still desperately trying to collect from cash-strapped families.
In 2019, Sen. Mitchell partnered with Sen. Bob Hertzberg to produce a follow-up bill that sought to end most administrative fees in the adult system, statewide. That bill, SB 144, also known as the Family Over Fees Act, failed to gain enough support in last year’s legislative season, but it will continue on in 2020. (Tuesday’s motion also would trigger a letter from the supes to lawmakers and the governor in support of SB 144.)
A more modest fines and fees reform bill made it to Gov. Newsom’s desk, where it failed to earn a final signature from the governor. AB 927 would have required courts seeking to impose fines and fees on adult and juvenile defendants in criminal proceedings to determine whether each person had the ability to pay those debts (which often become the burden of defendants’ loved ones).
While Newsom said he supported the “intent” of the bill, he said he did not believe “requiring a hearing on defendants’ ability to pay” was “the best approach in every case.” Instead, the governor said he believed the issue should be addressed through the budget process.
Thus, Newsom’s January budget proposal included the expansion of an ability-to-pay program currently only available to traffic law violators. The program allows low-income Californians to apply online to reduce their tickets and fees by approximately 50 percent, while applying for a payment plan. Under the plan outlined in Newsom’s budget, the program would newly cover people accused of other infractions and crimes.
For now, it is up to local governments to decide whether to kill justice system fines and fees.
Image from Let’s Get Free LA.