Making the Poor Pay Twice

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Oakland Magazine – By Scott Morris

In July, the Alameda County Superior Court system moved most criminal arraignments in the county to a new $147.5 million courthouse in Dublin, far from the region’s main population centers. The plan immediately sparked outrage, including from Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who argued that it would further erode court access for the East Bay’s poorest people to the criminal justice system.

Records also show that low-income residents, many of whom live in Oakland and now must travel to the east part of the county for criminal cases, are the same people who largely paid for the construction of the new Dublin courthouse, which is a mile away from the Dublin BART station.

In fact, a substantial portion of costs for the new East County Hall of Justice—as well as most recently constructed courthouses in California—have been paid through hikes on fines and fees for criminal citations, including many minor infractions and traffic tickets. According to a January 2016 report by the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office, about one-sixth of all fine and fee revenue collected in the state goes to court construction costs.

“The fines that are related to coming into the criminal system are outrageous,” said Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of the plan to hold countywide arraignments in Dublin. “The people who have the least are in some ways required to spend the most.”

A 2016 report by a coalition of legal aid organizations, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and the East Bay Community Law Center, found that California’s structure of fines can lead to devastating impacts on poor and minority communities. Fines and fees are charged without regard to who can afford to pay, leading to late fees piling up for already struggling people who then can lose their driver’s license and their transportation to work and can even wind up in jail.

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