Few Winners When Courts Privatize the Collection of Public Debts

Monday, June 4, 2018

Next City – By Jared Brey

Every Wednesday morning, the East Bay Community Law Center runs a walk-in clinic out of its office in Berkeley, Calif.

The clinic is run by the Center’s Clean Slate Practice, which focuses on “the decriminalization of poverty,” according to Brandon Greene, one of its lead attorneys. Some of Greene’s colleagues do post-conviction work, helping to seal arrest records, reduce probation, and help people who’ve been denied employment because of criminal backgrounds. But Greene’s clients are facing a particular set of issues: court-ordered debt related to things like traffic violations and parking tickets.

“For the average person, they think that a parking ticket isn’t really expensive,” says Greene. “But if you don’t pay your parking ticket or can’t afford to pay your parking ticket, eventually that ends up going to the Franchise Tax Board, which is the state agency that can garnish your wages … These things can sort of spiral out of control, particularly for folks who are housing insecure and get a lot of tickets on their vehicles.”

On top of that, courts often outsource debt collection to private agencies, which operate on contracts negotiated county-by-county, and take varying rates of commission on delinquent debt. Clients are often confused about who exactly they’re supposed to pay and when. Greene says he’s had clients with more than $10,000 worth of traffic-related debts, “because they ratchet up so quickly.” He’s also represented clients who’ve had their wages over-garnished by more than $1,000 because of administrative errors.

“If anything short-circuits along that way or people aren’t communicating adequately, people can find themselves in very precarious positions,” Greene says.

Last week, the California Reinvestment Coalition released a study of issues related to court-ordered debt and called on California courts to end their reliance on private contractors — or at least to open up the contract negotiations for public review. The report, called “Unholy Alliance: California Courts’ Use of Private Debt Collectors,” shows that private debt collection practices vary from place to place, disproportionately harm low-income communities and communities of color, and generate vanishingly little revenue for counties.

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