Existing law imposes administrative fees on people who have served their sentence and are striving to move forward. These fees – for things like probation supervision, presentence investigations, and drug and alcohol testing – are charged on top of other costs and can quickly mount to thousands of dollars. Because of racial bias in the criminal legal system, administrative fees disproportionately harm people of color, stripping wealth from those communities. Administrative fees also undermine successful reentry, increasing the likelihood of recidivism.
Administrative fees charged to people in the criminal legal system are incredibly burdensome. For example, in Los Angeles County, someone with a 3-year term of probation accumulates more than $5,500 in supervision fees alone.
Administrative fees are not meant to be punitive, yet people experience them as another form of punishment after already having served time, paid fines, or faced other consequences. Further, research shows that the vast majority of people charged such costs cannot afford to pay them and that counties typically net very little or even lose revenue after accounting for collections costs.1 Thus, administrative fees are high pain for vulnerable Californians and low gain for government.
Due to systemic racial bias, administrative fees are disproportionately imposed on communities of color, even though close to half of Black and Latinx families in California are already struggling to put food on the table and pay for housing.2 Moreover, 83% of those paying these costs are women.3 Administrative fees compound inequity.
Fees make reentry harder, hurting credit scores, making it harder for people to find housing or open a bank account, and discouraging recently released people from seeking formal employment out of fear that their wages will be garnished, bank accounts levied, or tax refunds intercepted.
California should end the practice of assessing criminal administrative fees. Eliminating administrative fees will allow formerly incarcerated people to devote their limited resources to critical needs like food, education, housing and health insurance. Repealing criminal fees will also result in improved employment prospects for formerly incarcerated people and put more money in the pockets of economically insecure families, aiding successful reentry and reducing California’s recidivism rate.
Momentum for Reform
Momentum is building for criminal fees reform. In 2016, California enacted legislation ending juvenile administrative fees statewide. In 2018, San Francisco repealed all county-authorized fees and waived over $30 million in outstanding criminal justice debt owed by 21,000, mostly low-income, San Franciscans. In September 2018, the Alameda County Public Protection Committee recommended that the Board similarly eliminate all county-authorized criminal fees, and Los Angeles County eliminated its public defender registration fee in 2017.
1 See, e.g., East Bay Community Law Center, Pay or Prey (2018); Berkeley Law Public Advocacy Clinic, Making Families Pay (2017).
2 Insight Center for Community Economic Development, Cost of Being Californian (2018).
3 Ella Baker Center, Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families (2015).