From Elizabeth Warren to Cory Booker, many high-profile lawmakers now identify reducing the racial wealth gap as a policy priority, bringing more attention to growing disparities between white and non-white households than ever before. While we track the ambitious proposals being made at the federal level to close the wealth gap, numerous measures that would reduce barriers to accumulating wealth have been introduced in the California State Legislature. One of which is SB 144, the “Families Over Fees Act” authored by Senator Holly Mitchell. This two-year bill proposes eliminating administrative fines and fees that people encounter at all points within the criminal justice system across California.
In order to understand how this bill would impact wealth inequality, we need to understand the context behind current levels of household wealth. As of 2018, the median income for a black household in California was just 10% that of a white household. This disparity can be attributed to a range of policies and practices that have cut off communities of color from wealth: redlining, predatory lending, and targeted policing to name a few. By laying out a plan to end criminal fines and fees, SB 144 acknowledges the historical factors that have created such an extreme wealth gap—specifically, the criminal justice system’s uneven application of punishment to communities of color.
Throughout California, fines and fees are assessed by courts to pay for services such as public defenders, mandatory drug testing, and probation supervision, often adding up to thousands of dollars for those who exit the system. The individuals that bear the burden of these fees are disproportionately non-white, given that these populations are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, even when controlling for criminal behavior. According to an East Bay Community Law Center report, “The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that in 2015. . . 42% of prisoners were Hispanic and 29% were African American.” These individuals are also the least able to pay their fees, as they are overwhelmingly low-income, without savings, and job insecure. When they inevitably cannot pay, they are further penalized with more fines or jail time, eroding what little wealth they have and embedding them further into the criminal justice system. This, in turn, widens the racial wealth gap, as unpaid court fees cause non-white households to fall further behind their white counterparts in accumulating savings.
Eliminating fines and fees would prevent local governments from extracting wealth from households who start out with little to none—mostly black and Latino households who make up the bottom of the wealth distribution.
Some might worry that eliminating fines and fees means lost revenue for counties. In theory, local government can pass off some of their costs to individuals and cut down on spending. In reality, this is hardly the case, as the majority of fees are imposed on people who cannot afford to pay. A 2018 study conducted by the San Francisco Treasurer’s Financial Justice Project found that over 80% of fees went unpaid so their county ended up covering most of the costs anyway, while people exiting the criminal justice system racked up more debt and faced higher chances of recidivism. Moreover, most of the fees that are collected go toward expenses related to debt collection, rather than public programs that might provide economic relief to people in poverty. Eliminating fines and fees would present no significant losses to cities and counties and would allow struggling households to devote their limited resources to necessities such as food, housing, and childcare. In light of these findings, San Francisco County has already eliminated all criminal fines and fees as of June 2018.
So far, SB 144 has made its way to the Assembly. Mitchell states, “This bill will relieve families from the kind of debt that impedes financial stability and true rehabilitation. I look forward to working with the stakeholders and the governor’s office in identifying the true costs related to these fees and moving the bill in 2020.” In the meantime, it is crucial that we urge legislators to pass this bill, whether that means contacting our local representatives or sending letters of support to the Public Safety Committee ahead of the bill’s hearing. To learn more about the research behind SB 144 and how to support its passage, take a look at these resources from Debt Free Justice California, the coalition that played a major role in authoring it.