Eliminating criminal justice fees is a moral imperative for the Alameda Board of Supervisors

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Daily Cal – By Nadia Kale, Kim Tran and Megan Wang

M.B. was trying to turn her life around when a state debt collector withdrew all of the funds in her bank account to satisfy a criminal justice debt of more than $1,800. At the time, M.B. was living in a sober living facility. She was saving up her public assistance dollars, and adding whatever help family and friends could provide, in the hopes of finding a place of her own once she eased out of her transitional housing. The emptying of her bank account set M.B. three steps back before she could even take her first step toward successful reentry.

As clinical students in the East Bay Community Law Center, or EBCLC, Clean Slate practice, we see clients like M.B. every day who are working hard to improve their lives, but who struggle to get out from underneath insurmountable criminal justice debt.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors has a chance to change M.B.’s life on Tuesday, Dec. 4 by voting to repeal and discharge all outstanding criminal justice administrative fees. In Alameda County, residents are charged for the cost of their probation supervision, for participating in diversion programs in lieu of incarceration, and for access to a public defender. Like M.B., even after having served their sentence, individuals are still unable to begin the next chapter of their lives due to crippling criminal justice debt. 85 percent of people returning to society from prison owe some form of criminal justice debt. A national survey by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that 63 percent of respondents report that family members were primarily responsible for covering conviction-related costs.

The board should vote yes on repeal and discharge because its most vulnerable constituents are being exploited for money they simply do not have. As detailed in EBCLC’s recent report, “Pay or Prey: How the Alameda County Criminal Justice System Extracts Wealth from Marginalized Communities,” the ripple effects of these debts are immense and reinforce systems of cyclical poverty, with families usually paying a significant price for their loved ones criminal justice debts. A criminal conviction already creates significant barriers to employment, housing and community reentry, making fees even more difficult to pay. Insurmountable fines and fees exacerbate poverty and place indigent individuals in hopeless situations.

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