S.F. Ordinance Targets Fees Faced by Poor Defendants



Across the country, thousands of people are unconstitutionally jailed simply for being poor. States pile on fines and fees, even when it is clear that the person is simply too poor to pay. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that someone cannot be punished for being poor.

If a person is too poor to pay a debt to the state, then the state must find an alternate solution, such as community service, a payment plan, or reduction in the fine itself. Nevertheless, many states ignore long standing constitutional precedent and jail people for fines they cannot pay, resulting in modern-day debtors’ prisons.

A number of fees like those faced by our plaintiffs would be wiped out under legislation that San Francisco city Board of Supervisors President London Breed plans to introduce. The ordinance, backed by Supervisor Malia Cohen, along with the city’s treasurer, public defender and district attorney, seeks to change a system that proponents say fails to deter crime while unfairly burdening poor defendants and hindering the rehabilitation of people convicted of crimes.

The new proposal would affect a particular set of fees imposed by the Superior Court, those that come under city, rather than state, jurisdiction, including fees intended to pay the costs of jail booking and  GPS tracking shackles. San Francisco would be the first city in the country to take such a step.

The practice of imposing fees and fines on people who are too poor to pay them compounds the already significant injustice that poor people charged with crimes can’t pay bail money and don’t have the resources to fight the charges against them as effectively as people with greater wealth. “Fees in a criminal case are the equivalent of payday loans,” Public Defender Jeff Adachi said. “They tell you to plead guilty and you get out of jail, but then they tack on over 50 fees that will keep you buried in debt forever. Many have nothing to do with the crime or repaying your debt to society.”

As our justice system gets more and more privatized, private probation companies who collect jail costs after release and impose  GPS tracking shackles, have become one of the leading culprits for violating constitutional rights. The number of people on probation or parole is now higher than ever, and hundreds of thousands of individuals report to a private probation company. Too often, these private companies do not provide needed rehabilitation services — such as help locating jobs or housing — and instead they threaten people on probation with more jail time to squeeze out exorbitant “probation fees.”  Such practices destabilize housing, employment, and family relationships, and result in thousands of people going to jail simply because they are too poor to pay a private company. 

The collateral damage to employment, child care,  and education makes fines and fees a tremendous — and unconstitutional — barrier to climbing out of the cycle of poverty. Such wealth-based discrimination has no place in our justice system.  

San Francisco’s ordinance banning fees for GPS tracking shackles and probation fees is a step in the right direction. With your help, Equal Justice Under Law will continue to fight the wide-spread and unconstitutional practice of wealth-based discrimination and push for more ordinances and legislation that eliminate such discrimination.

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