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.