I Served My Prison Time. Why Do I Still Have to Pay?

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April 30, 2019

The New York Times – By Courtney E. Martin

Imagine the kind of bill you might receive upon leaving the hospital for an emergency room visit or after giving birth — the line items inscrutable and seemingly out of your control (did you really agree to all those tests?), the number of zeros far more voluminous than you could have anticipated.

Now imagine getting that same kind of bill on your first day out of jail. You’ve served your time and, theoretically at least, repaid your debt to society. But upon discharge you are handed a bill for things like HS BF County ($125), PenSB1773 2/10 ($107.80), State Penalty ($377.30). You are behind on your bills before you’ve even begun your new life.

Such is the experience of people all across the United States, predominantly people of color who leave jail with what are called criminal justice administrative fees.

Until now.

San Francisco is leading a campaign that could bring a wave of change. More and more counties are ending the practice of saddling prisoners with administrative fees, and many are also forgiving the debt of those who have been charged. In August 2018, the County of San Francisco forgave $32 million of those fees. Alameda and Contra Costa Counties followed.

Just this month, a California state bill — SB144, the Families Before Fees Act — was introduced by State Senators Holly Mitchell and Robert Hertzberg. During a news conference, Senator Mitchell said the legislation was necessary “to remove economic shackles on those who already paid their debt to society” because the shackling “makes reintegration in their communities, our communities, almost impossible.”

Fees and fines are not the same thing. People found guilty of crimes may also be ordered by a court to pay restitution to their victims and perhaps to pay fines related to their crimes.

Fees are different. They are purely administrative — developed by counties and other entities to recoup costs, largely during the incarceration boom in the 1990s. The most common fees are monthly probation fees and fees for electronic monitors. As reported by the Brookings Institution last month, these fees are measurably more frequently applied and cost more in cities with a higher proportion of African-Americans.

On the surface, such fee elimination might seem straightforward. Take San Francisco: The Financial Justice Project found that over the past six years, $57 million in criminal justice administrative fees were charged and an average of only 17 percent were recouped.

In other words, it was highly ineffective as a revenue source, and as a moral force it was downright depraved.