Three years ago, during Brandon Greene’s first week working as a lawyer in a new clinic affiliated with the East Bay Community Law Center, he was handed a stack of cases to review. Each involved a client who was struggling to pay down the fines and fees that easily accumulate in California’s criminal justice system. It was his job to help. A handful of the cases were so old that he couldn’t find current contact information for the clients. He quickly realized that “some of those folks,” even if he did reach them, “could not get back on their feet at all” because of their debt. “The folks who were being affected were mostly indigent,” he said. “Everything costs money. Every program costs money. And a lot of folks can’t afford to pay these things.”
Theresa Zhen, a staff attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, who is helping coordinate the advocacy effort for SB144, is already declaring victory. “The fact that even the opposition to the bill admits that it’s philosophically right is huge,” she said. “We’re finally having the real conversation: that courts have been built on the backs of the poor.”
A 2016 study in California from the East Bay Community Law Center found that license suspensions for failing to pay fines or appear in court are “directly correlated with poverty indicators and with race,” with driver’s license suspension rates ranging as high as five times the state average in communities that are primarily Black or Latino.
By doing so, it would dramatically reduce the economic hardships caused by court-ordered debt and enhance the economic security of system-involved populations, their families and their communities. SB 144 will usher in an era of criminal justice policy that does not rely on stripping wealth from communities of color and low-income communities.
East Bay Community Law Center celebrates victory as Alameda County Courts vote to make changes to the current Ability to Pay Determination Process that will provide more people with access to reduce their burdensome traffic court fines and fees.
Lawyers like the East Bay Community Law Center’s Theresa Zhen, left, have supported a bill that would stop California from forcing defendants like Velia Dueñas, right, to pay court fees they can’t afford.
Following the lead of San Francisco County’s June 2018 decision and building on more than two years of advocacy on the part of the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) and Debt Free Justice California coalition partners, Alameda County ceased the assessment and collection of fees for probation supervision, investigation reports, participation in the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program, and many more fees that extract wealth from low-income communities of color. In past years, the average adult on probation in Alameda County has faced over $6,000 in fees. The new policy, along with the discharge of existing debt, will go into effect on January 4, 2019.
Newly-formed Debt Free Justice California coalition celebrates stunning victory as Board of Supervisors votes to make Alameda the nation’s second county to end wealth extraction through criminal justice fees and bring about “Debt-Free Justice” for communities.
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.
Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, the East Bay Community Law Center, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and other groups told the board that the fees should be eliminated because they create a long-term financial burden for low-income people who already served time for their crimes but then have problems turning their lives around.