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The Only Winners In California’s Fines and Fees System Are Private Debt Collectors

San Francisco just became the first city in the nation to stop charging court fines and fees, but the rest of the state has a long way to go.

A San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic officer issues a ticket for an illegally parked car.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Only Winners In California’s Fines and Fees System Are Private Debt Collectors

San Francisco just became the first city in the nation to stop charging court fines and fees, but the rest of the state has a long way to go.


Kim Lacey couldn’t understand how unpaid traffic tickets had cost her so much. Over the last decade, Lacey has had her wages garnished, her tax returns seized, her credit score ruined, and her driver’s license suspended because of outstanding court fines and fees. She has paid approximately $5,400 to Alameda County, California, where she lives, since she received her first ticket in 2008, she told The Appeal. And she sees no end in sight from the hounding of a system which has emotionally and financially bled her dry.

Fines and fees create a “lose-lose scenario” both for counties and their residents, according to a report released in May by the California Reinvestment Coalition (CRC). The system places a disproportionate burden on the poor, and then fails to recoup most of the money it seeks. For example, over the course of six years, San Francisco was able to collect only 17 percent of the $15 million it demanded in court debt.

But yesterday, the city officially became the first in the nation to stop charging people discretionary criminal justice fines and fees. Some of the charges it is eliminating are for probation, booking, restitution, and costs for alcohol testing and participation in monitoring and home detention programs. These costs, often hundreds or thousands of dollars, historically created an additional stumbling block for anyone coming out of jail or prison.

“These financial burdens frequently hit individuals at the precise moment they are trying to turn their lives around,” San Francisco’s ordinance reads.

But Californians in other parts of the state, like Lacey, are still subjected to 684 criminal justice financial penalties, according to the CRC report. Most of these are fines intended to be punitive, like a speeding ticket. Fifty-seven are fees, user charges tacked on to help fund the courts. These debts can pile up quickly; a $100 ticket for running a red light in California, for example, comes with an additional $390 in fees.

As time passes, interest compounds and late-payment fees get added to delinquent debt, making it even harder for those who fall behind to pay  what they owe.

But if communities and residents aren’t benefiting from the current arrangement, who is? As it stands, said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the system is giving incentives for private firms to profit off poor communities. Many California counties contract with private debt collection agencies.

“In California, [debt collection agencies] are getting commissions of 12 to 18 percent, which is on top of debt we don’t even know if people can afford to pay,” Weiss said.

And that’s just for newly delinquent debt. “Commission fees encourage private debt collectors to collect on debt over five years old, and to allow debt to age so that they can collect on it later and receive higher commission fees,” according to the CRC report. Once the delinquent debt has aged over five years, collectors’ commission fees can go up to nearly 26 percent.  

Many private collection agencies are authorized by the state to pay themselves back for operating costs before they distribute money to state and local governments. According to the report, between 2013 and 2014, such costs amounted to $114 million, or 6 percent of the total fine and fee revenue.  

Because debt collection agencies are a third party separate from the courts, people’s records often fall through the cracks. According to her attorney, Lacey ended up receiving a refund of nearly $800 because, with the help of the East Bay Community Law Center, she was able to show the court that Alliance One—the collection agency used by the Alameda County Court—had been asking for payments on tickets Lacey had already paid.

Furthermore, collection agencies are not bound by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which protects consumers from various forms of threat and harassment, because court debts are considered “involuntary.” As a result of this loophole, said Miguel Soto, an attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center, “We’ve had clients tell us that the [debt collector] they’re dealing with is threatening them with violence, imprisonment, or, in some occasions, deportation.”

Because debt collection agencies are allowed to report unpaid debt to credit bureaus, court debt can also ruin a person’s credit score, grievously impacting his or her ability to rent a home or secure a student loan. This is a voluntary action, and, in its report, the CRC strongly advises that counties prevent agencies from taking it.

“How is it that a traffic ticket affects your credit?” asked Lacey. Because of her court debt, she said, “I can’t buy a house, I can’t go nowhere—I’m stuck in the ’hood. I can’t even leave because all the money I get, they take it.”

Said Weiss: “We’re taking something not meant to be punitive and punishing [people] for their poverty.”

“If there were an effective cost-benefit analysis for counties on these fines and fees, the costs would far outweigh the benefits,” said Nancy Fishman, a project director at the Vera Institute of Justice. Most counties, Fishman said, don’t pay close attention to how much money they actually make off of fines and fees. In California, court-ordered debt collected by private agencies makes up only 0.001 to 0.46 percent of a county’s total revenue. In New Orleans, the cost of incarcerating people who could not pay bail, fines, or fees was nearly $2 million more than the amount that court debt brought in. Counties see money coming in, but do not think about the cost of obtaining it—or how much remains uncollected because residents are unable to pay.

According to Weiss, almost every state in the country has increased its fines and fees over the last five years; especially after the 2008 recession, such charges were seen as an ideal way to generate revenue. In California, a $155 charge for a stop violation in 2005 became a $283 charge in 2015. In both years, the base fine was $35.  

“We have an allergy to taxes, and there are few ways municipalities can raise money: taxes, utilities, and fines and fees,” Weiss said. “Fines and fees is the most regressive way, but often happens without a lot of the public weighing in, understanding, or being concerned. ” She pointed out that fines and fees are most frequently handed out to poor communities that don’t have political or monetary clout, and thus have become an ideal way for a county government to raise money without resistance.

“I feel like it affects, mostly—honestly—Black people and Mexicans,” said Lacey, who is Black. “We struggle like crazy and we don’t know nothing about the system, so they keep us in the system.”

According to the CRC report, 64 percent of people arrested and subsequently subjected to fines and fees in California are people of color. San Francisco made note of this point in its ordinance, which states, “Indeed, the burden of these fines and fees falls heaviest on the African-American community, which accounts for less than 6% of the population of San Francisco, but makes up over half the population in the county jail.”

Fishman thinks it is impractical to demand that those who pass through the criminal justice system should be responsible for paying for it. “If a lot of the folks being charged are poor people and don’t have the money,” she said, “charging them all these fines and fees is 1) not going to get you the money you need and 2) is going to pull these people further into the justice system and make it that much harder for them to become contributing members of that community.”  

Though states control most of the fines and fees levied in their courts, counties still hold considerable power to reduce the burden on their residents: Many fines and fees are discretionary, issued at the local level. Weiss is hopeful that San Francisco’s move is indicative of a new wave of reform. Within the last year, both California and Mississippi have stopped suspending driver’s licenses for those who have not paid fines. In 2017, Philadelphia stopped using cost and care fees for juveniles.

Fishman, however, is less optimistic. “We’re generally not in a world where we can say ‘As goes San Francisco so goes the nation,’” she said. “Some of the places that are struggling the most with this, both in terms of how to pay for bloated justice systems and how to deal with the fact that most of the people in the community are too poor to pay, are not San Francisco.”

Instead, said Fishman, in smaller, especially more rural towns, fines and fees “fit in still with their sense of justice, and there’s a sense that there aren’t other resources. If you don’t have a big tax base to support your justice system, you’re going to look for whatever resources you can find—even if they’re not the best ones to try.” Even so, she said, such counties “are trying to get blood from a turnip.”

“If folks could pay the first small fee, they would,” said Soto, the attorney. “Honestly, the majority of folks [passing through the system] are already hand to mouth. Getting hit with another $40 or $50 right now is not something they can plausibly do. And because they can’t pay that, the penalty is they have to pay more … at some point, you’re just trapped.”