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California Criminal Fee Repeal a Big Step for Racial Justice, Equitable Policy

In a victory for fiscal policy and racial justice, California has repealed some county fees and eliminated the related unpaid debt. As other states consider how to respond to the COVID-19 recession in ways that dismantle racial and economic barriers, they should follow California’s action, which will permanently end 23 criminal legal fees, such as probation fees for public defenders, parole supervision fees, and local booking fees.

To raise revenue, state and local governments too often turn to fines and fees, which ask the most from those who are the least able to pay, particularly among low-income communities of color. Although states rarely collect detailed data on fines and fees or make it easily available, these revenue sources have grown in recent years, as many cash-strapped states and localities used fines and fees — rather than closing corporate loopholes or raising taxes on the wealthiest families — to make up for the revenue they lost during the Great Recession of a decade ago. This increasing reliance on fees and fines has fallen particularly hard on Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people of low income. Due to structural racism and longstanding patterns of discrimination, people in these communities are likelier to be caught up in a discriminatory criminal justice system that often leaves people jailed simply because they cannot pay these fees.

The 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri helped bring public attention to the widespread misuse of fines and fees to raise revenue, often from civil citation and tickets. The widespread use of fines and fees can cause people long-lasting harm, research has found, and some of the highest and most burdensome fees are connected to criminal justice systems.

California lawmakers have charted a new course toward an antiracist and more equitable criminal justice and fiscal system. The bill that Governor Gavin Newsom signed last month eliminates 23 fees that counties imposed and forgives the unpaid debt on them, relieving Californians of an estimated $16 billion in debt. The law, which takes effect next July 1, includes an annual $65 million appropriation to cover the lost fee revenue, and it creates a new methodology to allocate those funds to localities.

California lawmakers need to go further, however. They left in place county-level criminal fines, state and local criminal fees, and non-criminal fines and fees imposed by state and local governments. They also did not reform or eliminate the state’s fees for traffic tickets, which are among the highest in the country and disproportionately affect people of color, who are stopped, cited, and convicted at higher rates.

California lawmakers should consider eliminating all criminal and traffic legal fees and restructure fines so they are more based on the ability to pay. In addition, lawmakers should reduce or eliminate the cost of communication (such as phone calls) and necessities (such as food and toiletries) for individuals in detention facilities, since incarcerated people often pay inflated fees for these items. In most cases, entire families assume the burden of the fees imposed on people who are incarcerated, exacerbating the financial burden.

Other states are starting to make significant efforts to address the barriers and harmful policy practices that fines and fees can cause. Several states — California, Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Oregon, and Virginia as well as Washington, D.C. — recently ended the suspension of driver’s licenses of people who can’t pay fees and fines. With their license suspended, these residents find it much harder to get to work, go to school, and provide for their families.

Lawmakers can build more equitable states — even as they respond to COVID-19 — by reducing fees and fines. They should continue to make progress in dismantling racial and economic barriers with antiracist policies that are explicit counterweights to longstanding structural racism, discrimination, and bias.