One of the biggest problems in the criminal justice system is that when people are released from prison, they still owe a huge host of fines and fees. These fines and fees end up shackling vulnerable people as they try to regain their footing in society.
Under current California law, administrative fees – developed by counties and other local entities attempting to recoup administrative costs – include fees for public defenders, booking, mandatory drug testing, and costs related to a person’s incarceration and probation supervision, like electronic monitoring.
These fees can quickly add up to thousands of dollars and are aimed to recoup costs. But what they have become is another form of punishment that, according to people like Senator Holly Mitchell, “are essentially another form of punishment that disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income communities, driving people deeper into poverty and further entangling them in the criminal system because people can’t afford to pay.”
That’s why she, along with Senator Robert Hertzberg, introduced SB 144 last week.
At a news conference, she explained that 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.”
SB 144 would prevent counties from assessing and collecting those administrative fees.
“This practice inflicts unfair debt on incarcerated people and their families long after they have served their time,” she said at the press conference.
One of the people introduced at the press conference was Angelique Evans. Ms. Evans served time – a decade – at the women’s prison in Chowchilla and upon her release she had hoped to be able to buy her son back-to-school clothes.
However, what she would learn was that she would have to pay more than $300 a month in fines and fees upon her release – so much that she struggled to take care of her son.
“I don’t blame anybody for my actions,” she said. “I served my time. But I want to move forward. I want to do right by my son. But how can I move forward with these fees hanging over me? It made me feel so low.
“To make ends meet, I took on jobs that I knew my body could not handle, such as landscaping and solar installation,” said Ms. Evans, who lives in Los Angeles. “I was literally wearing myself out.”
Senator Mitchell at her press conference noted that recent studies show most counties don’t even track collection rates. Those that did keep track found low collection rates and a high cost of collection.
“Communities, courts, counties and evidence-based studies make it abundantly clear that the fees are high pain and low gain,” she said.
In an article in the New York Times last week, Ms. Evans said, “My heart is with SB 144. I’ve been through the struggle. I hate to see the women coming home, simply trying to survive, trying to do the right thing and getting pulled under by these fees.”
Courtney Martin last week in the New York Times noted, “How can prisoners sent back into society manage when they can’t pay a mountain of bills presented at release?”
Increasingly, the answer is they can’t – which is why a coalition is trying to cut those charges.
Ms. Martin spoke with Theresa Zhen, a staff attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, who is helping coordinate the advocacy effort for SB144.
She said Ms. Zhen 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.”
For Ms. Evans though, that cost is still enormous. She still owes $3000 in administrative fees.
Under SB 144, the bill would repeal the authority to collect those administrative fees and “would make the unpaid balance of any court-imposed costs unenforceable and uncollectible.”
It would also “prohibit the imposition of trial court filing fees or costs related to the persons underlying criminal conviction.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting