San Francisco supervisors to consider basing city fines, fees based on ability to pay

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) — A task force examining the inequitable application of the fines and fees levied in San Francisco for things like traffic violations or other minor citations unveiled a series of recommendations Wednesday that will be examined by the Board of Supervisors.

“San Francisco should not be in the business of impoverishing poor and working class families,” Supervisor Jane Kim said at a news conference outside of City Hall this morning. “We are impoverishing poor and working class families because they made a mistake.”

The task force was created in late 2016 at the recommendation of Kim and former Supervisor John Avalos. It was staffed by the new Financial Justice Project launched by city Treasurer Jose Cisneros.

“It is only fitting that a city that provides free Muni, champions universal health care and provides free City College is now the first to champion these kinds of reforms,” Cisneros said on Wednesday. “We need consequences for breaking the law, but one ticket shouldn’t cost someone their job, wreck their credit or hurt their ability to find a job or place to live.”

The task force is recommending the city base fine and fee amounts on the person’s ability to pay rather than setting the amount the same for everyone regardless of income.

This could include offering community service options, flexible payment plans, or waiving certain fees for people receiving public benefits.

Kim pointed out that penalties can make even small fines quickly balloon to hundreds of dollars in penalties.

The task force is also recommending ending the practice of suspending people’s driver’s licenses when they don’t pay traffic citations and finding ways to ensure that penalties don’t prevent people struggling with homelessness from finding a job or new place to live.

They are also seeking reforms to the cash bail system so people are not stuck in jail simply because of how much money they have.

In developing the recommendations, the city reviewed nationwide data on the impact of fines and fees, including the 2015 Ferguson Report by the U.S. Department of Justice, a study that began after 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer.

The report found that the city of Ferguson aggressively raised revenue through fines and fees, including hundreds of dollars for each instance of high grass and weeds in a yard, failure to comply with an officer
or not having proof of insurance.

Other research reviewed by the task force found that excessive fines and fees were prevalent throughout the country and cities are becoming increasingly reliant on their revenue.

This can create significant hardships on a city’s poorer residents and disproportionately affects black residents.

The city’s task force found that traffic fines in California are some of the highest in the country, leading to 4 million people in the state having their driver’s licenses suspended because they couldn’t afford to pay
a fine.

In San Francisco, the justice system, including fines and fees, significantly affects the city’s black population.

While black residents represent only 6 percent of the city’s population, they are over half of the city’s jail population.

Of the people arrested for a traffic court warrant, 45 percent are black, according to the task force’s report.

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