Criminal Justice

Offenders in California Get Saddled with Thousands of Dollars in Court Fees. This Bill Would Stop That.

A study shows that when these fees hit low-income offenders, they wreck their lives—and also don't even get paid.


Criminal convictions can come with significant fines and fees—and not just the kind where you're "paying for your crime." Criminal defendants get overloaded with administrative court fees, thanks to the government's desire to fund a massive criminal justice system without forcing all the costs onto taxpayers. In California counties, this can add up to thousands of dollars. And when you throw those costs at low-income people, they often find themselves unable to pay that money.

This creates two big problems. First, it makes it harder for poor people to get back in the clear, to clean up their act (assuming they've been convicted of an actual crime that harms other people, as opposed to some vice nonsense), and to live stable lives. Second, because they're poor, they cannot actually pay these fees, and so the expected revenue doesn't actually show up in budgets. So they don't even end up sparing the taxpayers these costs.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D–Los Angeles) wants to change that. You may recall Mitchell from her legislation scaling back civil asset forfeiture abuse. Now she's introduced SB-144, which aims to roll back the court-fee burden. The bill would delete most court administrative fees and forgive a lot of the existing debts.

Mitchell explained the problems of California's administrative fees in a recent op-ed:

Despite its progressive reputation, California imposes financial burdens and barriers—including administrative fees, surcharges, and penalty assessments—on people who have gone through the legal system and are striving to move forward with their lives. These additional impositions are extraordinarily burdensome and undermine the economic security of low-income families and families of color who simply cannot afford to pay them.

In Los Angeles County, for example, someone with a three-year term of probation accumulates over $5,500 in probation administrative fees alone—fees that drive people into debt and push families deeper into poverty.

These fees are often collected through wage garnishments or interceptions of tax refunds, and this naturally drives many people into work paid under the table.

Many of these counties do not, in fact, cover the costs of their justice systems through these administrative fees. A report from the Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector for the City and County of San Francisco found that the collection rate on these fees is absolutely abysmal. In the San Francisco area, they collected a mere 17 percent of the administrative fees imposed on offenders. San Francisco has failed to collect more than $12 million out of $15.8 million in probation fees imposed over six years.

San Francisco's "Clean Slate" program is supposed to help people expunge their criminal records, but it requires that they pay off most of these fees. The aforementioned report from the Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector reprints a bill received by somebody who wanted to participate in the Clean Slate program, showing more than $5,000 due from 24 separate fines and fees. Those fees aren't intended to be an additional form of punishment, any more than bail is, but it certainly works out that way for people who don't have much disposable income.

These extensive, burdensome costs also animate some of the new activism to try to scale back the duration that people spend on probation on the first place. It's costly, and long probations aren't really making communities safer.

Mitchell's bill deletes dozens of administrative fees, including those costly probation supervision demands, as well as any demands that defendants pay for pretrial supervision costs. That's a big worry with the bail reform movement: that courts might replace money bail demands with orders that defendants pay for their own pretrial monitoring. You can read through the list of all the deleted fees in the Senate analysis documents (a $15 charge for a written promise to appear at court…really?).

The bill has the backing of dozens of civil rights and criminal justice reform organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Unions. It's opposed by county government organizations and state sheriff's and probation officer groups.

Interestingly, the opposition hasn't framed its concerns by attempting to argue that these reforms will lead to more crime. They don't think eliminating these fees inherently creates a danger, and they acknowledges that these fees and fines cause serious problems for offenders' re-entry. Their concern is that ending these fees will cause all sorts of downstream funding problems and could lead to the elimination of various services and programs.

Much like civil asset forfeiture revenue, these types of fees have been used to help make up funding gaps. Some were specifically put in place to fund reform programs.

This doesn't make Mitchell's bill misguided. But there's going to have to be a significant realignment of how various criminal justice programs are going to be funded if SB-144 becomes law. Then again, given how many cities collect such a small percentage of what they're legally owed, they've arguably had to adjust expectations anyway.

The bill is currently in the State Senate's Appropriations Committee, where it looks like it's about to pass. Read it for yourself here.

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  1. These additional impositions are extraordinarily burdensome and undermine the economic security of low-income families and families of color who simply cannot afford to pay them.

    The phrasing here really stands out to me. If I read this right, shes saying that these fees undermine (1) low-income families and (2) families of color. So is a high-income family of color also unable to afford to pay the fees, just because they have darker skin?

    This is obviously not what she meant, but still stands out to me for how strangely worded it is. Sometimes I can’t help but think some of these people think that “people of color” are uniquely unable to understand the rules, live by the rules and be a functioning member of society. Like somehow they are unable to particiate by virtue of the color of their skin, rather than maybe being, on average, at a slight a disadvantage economically. Not all “people of color” are actually economically disadvantaged. I do realize I’m being really ungenerous to the quoted person here.

    Reminds me of that one YouTube video where the guy goes around asking white college kids about voter ID laws and the white college kids give some low-key super racist answers for why they’re against the law: saying shit along the lines of “people of color don’t know where to get IDs from”, “they don’t understand the rules”, etc. Then, when they showed the answers to some black people, they were like “wtf, I know how the DMV works, fuck these college kids.”

    1. You have pinpointed one of the central lies of the Progressive Narrative; they SAY they want to help minorities and the poor. But what they Do clearly shows that they hold such people in contempt, viewing them a subhumans that must be constantly supervised ‘for their own good’.

      A position not that much different from the position of the Plantation Aristocracy concerning their slaves.

  2. Here’s an idea.
    Loser pays regardless its in a criminal or civil court.
    This way, it would decongest a lot of courts, save a lot of court time, and save the taxpayers some money.

    1. Hear Hear! It’s especially important when the government loses.

      It is also a massive help to poor people who can’t afford a lawyer no matter how good their case is. With loser pays, especially when the government is the prosecutor, a poor defendant with a good case should be able to find a lawyer willing to take the case on, because the government can afford to pay, and I doubt they will stonewall and try to hide income and wealth when the time comes to pay up.

      1. If the loser pays, how often do you think the government will lose?

        1. A lot fewer poor defendants would take plea deals if they were as vastly overcharged as they are now, and the innocent ones even more so. The government might want to frame them, but even our government isn’t that all-powerful, and when they lost anyway and had to pay even more loser’s costs, budget masters would start paying attention. City and county budgets are more constrained than federal and even state spenders.

  3. So, the real question here is…

    Why does the picture show eight US $100 bills and then 3.20 in Euro coins?


  4. Despite its progressive reputation, California imposes financial burdens and barriers

    Despite? Despite?!? I think she needs to take English as a Second Language courses.

    1. Or she simply doesn’t want to take on the argument that Progressivism is all about State Control in this article. Sure, she could baldly state “As with most Progressive States, California is all about controlling the Peasants.” But she wants to argue the merits of this particular bill, and one way to do that is accept the Progressive Narrative and then show how the bill supports it.

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