Gabriel Lopez, a peer mentor at L.A.’s Homeboy Industries, sees it all the time. A man gets locked up and while he’s gone, bills stack up. He gets out and he’s behind on rent, sometimes homeless and jobless. And there’s often another barrier he didn’t anticipate — a big tab that he owes the government.
When adults exit jail or the criminal justice system, they are generally assessed thousands of dollars in county administrative fees. The money goes to cover investigation costs, probation services and the like; it isn’t part of an offender’s punishment. In Los Angeles, ex-offenders can be charged a monthly probation fee of $155, a “court report” fee of $696, and more.
More times than not, criminal-justice administrative fees accumulate as unpaid debts and ultimately, as Lopez told the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors at a hearing on May 29, they “ just make the recidivism rate go up.” These people are impoverished, Lopez said: “It’s a form of bullying to make them give what they don’t even have.”
Lopez advocates for L.A. to adopt a policy San Francisco has just agreed to: the complete elimination of all county criminal-justice administrative fees and, ultimately, forgiveness of any outstanding fee debt still on the books. It’s only logical: the fees are high pain for people, and low gain for government.
In practice, these fees never generate much revenue because they are essentially impossible to collect.
California counties assess administrative fees that are among the highest in the nation, according to a report just released by the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and L.A. is at the top of the list. Its probation fee is more than three times the median of counties surveyed by the center.
The three most common fees throughout the state place an average of $3,600 in debt on people exiting jail, and ex-offenders can accrue multiple state and court administrative charges as well. Juveniles used to be subject to these fees as well; that was outlawed as onerous in 2009 in L.A. and last year throughout the state.
People coming out of jail simply cannot afford to pay what they’re charged. One San Francisco study found that two-thirds of ex-offenders are unemployed, and those who do have jobs earn about $3,000 a year. A study by the Ella Baker Center found that ex-offenders’ family members, usually mothers and wives, end up trying to pay these bills.
Because administrative fees are often collected through wage garnishment and bank account levies, they may drive people to the underground economy, which is one route back to jail. And charging people so much can compel them to seek quick — and illegal — sources for large amounts of cash. The White House Council of Economic Advisors cites a Rhode Island study that found that 20% of the state’s incarcerated were in jail because of criminal justice debt, including administrative fees and punitive fines.
When San Francisco eliminated criminal justice fees in June about 20,000 people owed the county $32 million. That sounds like their decision will result in a big loss to San Francisco’s coffers, but in practice, the fees never generated much revenue because they were essentially impossible to collect. The collection rate for the monthly probation fee was just 9% in 2016. The average collection rate for all the eliminated fees was 17%.
On May 29, the Los Angeles supervisors asked the county Probation Department to study the adult criminal fee system and the feasibility of forgiving any debt for those who years ago were charged fees as juveniles. The L.A. Probation Chief Terri McDonald has already made her position clear. When it comes to the lingering juvenile-system debt, she told the supervisors her department was “probably spending more” on collecting the fees than they were bringing in. And she has been on the record since last year saying that adult probation fees should be “greatly reduced or eliminated.”
The mission of the Los Angeles County Probation Department is “rebuilding lives, creating healthier and safer communities.” The overwhelming evidence is that criminal justice system administrative fees tear down lives and do nothing to make anyone healthier or safer. If Los Angeles joins San Francisco in eliminating these charges, the momentum could help end the burden of counterproductive administrative fees statewide.
Anne Stuhldreher directs the Financial Justice Project in the treasurer’s office for the City and County of San Francisco. The project recently published “Criminal Justice Administrative Fees — High Pain for People, Low Gain for Government.”
Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinionand Facebook