LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County’s complex system of court fees exploits poor families and should be eliminated, according to a report released Tuesday by a coalition of criminal justice advocates.
“Los Angeles County has a responsibility to ensure that all its community members, whether rich or poor, receive equal justice and a fair chance to succeed. However, by using the criminal system to extract fees and fines from low-income communities of color, the county is doing the opposite,” according to a statement by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
The report — “Costs of Injustice: How Criminal System Fees Are Hurting Los Angeles Families” — compares the system of fees to debtors’ prisons, workhouses and convict labor.
“Let us have a fair chance by eliminating fees, fines, penalties and assessments and allow us to enjoy all the great things Los Angeles County has to offer, not just its criminal system,” said Anthony Robles, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors eliminated juvenile detention fees last year and in April, asked its CEO to review fees charged in the adult criminal justice system.
The Costs of Injustice report and its findings are rooted in firsthand accounts, as well as a review of court records and other research reports.
Robles’ own story is included. He shared that he was living on food stamps and general relief and living rent-free with his grandmother, but the Probation Department calculated that he should be able to pay $2,000 in fees in $25 minimum monthly payments. He was lucky enough to have help from his family, but others are trapped by the debt, he said.
While fines are meant to be punitive, fees are typically designed to recoup costs or generate revenues to fund activities rather than to punish anyone. However, the costs can still force residents who are struggling financially to choose between household necessities and paying off court- ordered fees. The report estimates that two-thirds of probationers in Los Angeles County make less than $20,000 annually and nearly 40% make less than half that amount.
When due dates are missed, debt multiplies. The report found that fees disproportionately harm black and Latino communities.
Those who are unable to pay fines and fees can enroll in a community service programs, however the majority of those who enroll don’t manage to complete programs by the deadline, according to advocates.
“I’ve seen young people come in with 900 hours of community service,” Kim Mitchell of the Young Justice Coalition told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
Mitchell was one of dozens of community activists asking the board to take action. One criminal justice advocate spent the entire minute he was allotted to speak listing off a series of fees, including ankle monitors, lab fees, court facilities, citation processing and many more.
The report details a scenario in which a $390 fine for a first-time, no-injury DUI can end up costing more than $2,000 based on penalties and related fees.
In another scenario, a person who completes a jail sentence for property theft can then be required to pay court charges of nearly $8,000, including $155 in monthly fees for three years of probation supervision.
The fees sometimes increase the likelihood that offenders will commit another crime, according to the report, which cited a woman who was raised in foster care who began working as a prostitute at 13. She was first arrested at 22 and charged $700 to participate in a diversion program to avoid jail time.
“The county’s imposition of fees and fines on young people like L.P. does not curb their sexual exploitation. Instead, it increases the economic pressures on them, obstructing their way out,” the report stated.
The Costs of Injustice report was produced by a coalition called Let’s Get Free L.A., which includes people who have spent time in county jails, courts and on probation as well as the ACLU of Southern California, the Anti- Recidivism Coalition, the Community Coalition, Homeboy Industries, the National Lawyers Guild-L.A., Public Counsel, and the Youth Justice Coalition.
They argue that the county collects only 4% of fees charged and spends millions of dollars on collection.
The report offers five recommendations:
— eliminate all criminal justice system fees under the county’s control;
— reinvest money previously spent on collection on community services;
— establish effective oversight of groups offering classes and other court-ordered programs;
— support state legislation to minimize fees; and
— change practices that lead to excessive pretrial time in detention, which advocates say force plea deals that include fees.
San Francisco County eliminated many local administrative court fees last year. And Sens. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, have introduced SB 144, which would eliminate many administrative fees statewide. The bill is still in the Assembly committee process.
The California Legislative Office estimates that statewide debt from fines and fees totals more than $12 billion.
Opponents of eliminating fees have raised concerns about a lack of funding for criminal justice programs. The Senate Committee on Appropriations estimated that the state and counties would lose hundreds of millions in annual revenue, leaving required positions unfunded and creating pressure on the general fund.
The report is available at aclusocal.org/costsofinjustice.