San Francisco lifts $32 million in uncollectable debt off 21,000 people

August 30, 2018
Press Conference

Mayor London Breed, surrounded by community advocates and city leaders, announces the forgiveness of more than $32 million in criminal justice fee debt. August 23, 2018.

Thirty-three year old Jessica Salazar was making good progress. After she got out of jail in San Francisco in 2016, she went to treatment for her addiction and reconnected with her seven-year old daughter.

She was overwhelmed, though, by $3,000 in fines and fees related to her time in jail. Jessica’s bill included more than $2,300 in administrative fees, including $1,800 to pay for three years of monthly probation fees, which are billed up front. The fees are a big psychological and financial burden, she told NPR’s KQED

Thanks to action taken by the San Francisco Superior Court and city leaders, Salazar’s debt was cut down to $700. Last week, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that the San Francisco court had eliminated $32.7 million in debt from these local fees for 21,000 people, including Salazar. 

Salazar was relieved. “This is something I still have to stress over, but I can work with,” she said. For thousands of people who are struggling, like Salazar, Mayor Breed’s announcement not only cut down their debt- the action increased their chances of success.  

The Court’s action followed the legislation authored by London Breed when she was President of The Board of Supervisors. In July, when the legislation became law, San Francisco became the first county in the nation to eliminate all local criminal justice administrative fees. After the legislation passed, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón took the final step and petitioned the court to eliminate the outstanding debt. 

Our city leaders came together to address a problem many people don’t understand - when people are released from jail or exit the criminal justice system, they are charged thousands of dollars in administrative fees. These administrative fees are charged in addition to other consequences people face, such as time in jail, punitive fines, and victim restitution. The fees, however, are only meant to recoup costs for government and the courts; they are not meant to be punitive. But the reality is different. These fees are charged to very low-income people who cannot afford to pay them and can lead to wage garnishment and bank account levies. Research shows they can drive people into underground economies, make it harder for people to successfully reenter their community, and increase recidivism rates.

Furthermore, these fees are not an efficient way to cover costs. The collection rate for the monthly probation fee, the largest fee that was eliminated, was nine percent in 2016. “Charging very poor people fees to cover the City’s administrative costs makes no fiscal sense. These 21,000 people have already paid their debt to society, and by lifting this $32 million in debt, we are providing vulnerable communities with a real second chance,” said Treasurer José Cisneros, who is in charge of revenue collection for the City and County.

The Financial Justice Project is proud to have worked with many people to make these reforms real. Thanks to Mayor Breed, the Public Defender, the District Attorney, the San Francisco Superior Court, Adult Probation Chief Karen Fletcher and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy. And thank you to Debt Free SF and the many community organizations who tirelessly pushed these reforms forward.   

As Mayor Breed said: “These reforms started in San Francisco, but they won’t end here.” Other counties are advancing similar reforms and a California-wide coalition has formed to push for statewide reforms.

For more information about these reforms, please see our report: Criminal Justice Administrative Fees: High Pain for People, Low Gain for Government. Last week’s actions were also covered in the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Yours in Financial Justice, 
Anne and Christa