M.B. was trying to turn her life around when a state debt collector withdrew all of the funds in her bank account to satisfy a criminal justice debt of more than $1,800. At the time, M.B. was living in a sober living facility. She was saving up her public assistance dollars, and adding whatever help family and friends could provide, in the hopes of finding a place of her own once she eased out of her transitional housing. The emptying of her bank account set M.B. three steps back before she could even take her first step toward successful reentry.
As clinical students in the East Bay Community Law Center, or EBCLC, Clean Slate practice, we see clients like M.B. every day who are working hard to improve their lives, but who struggle to get out from underneath insurmountable criminal justice debt.
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors has a chance to change M.B.’s life on Tuesday, Dec. 4 by voting to repeal and discharge all outstanding criminal justice administrative fees. In Alameda County, residents are charged for the cost of their probation supervision, for participating in diversion programs in lieu of incarceration, and for access to a public defender. Like M.B., even after having served their sentence, individuals are still unable to begin the next chapter of their lives due to crippling criminal justice debt. 85 percent of people returning to society from prison owe some form of criminal justice debt. A national survey by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that 63 percent of respondents report that family members were primarily responsible for covering conviction-related costs.
The board should vote yes on repeal and discharge because its most vulnerable constituents are being exploited for money they simply do not have. As detailed in EBCLC’s recent report, “Pay or Prey: How the Alameda County Criminal Justice System Extracts Wealth from Marginalized Communities,” the ripple effects of these debts are immense and reinforce systems of cyclical poverty, with families usually paying a significant price for their loved ones criminal justice debts. A criminal conviction already creates significant barriers to employment, housing and community reentry, making fees even more difficult to pay. Insurmountable fines and fees exacerbate poverty and place indigent individuals in hopeless situations.
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors has a moral imperative to correct what is undeniably a racial justice problem. Out of the 9,000 people on probation in Alameda County, 47 percent are Black and 23 percent are Latinx. Because of long-standing and pervasive racial bias at every juncture of the criminal justice system, Black men in particular, suffer from overpolicing, incarceration and the extensive collateral consequences that follow. According to the 2018 Equity Report by the city of Oakland, Black residents of Oakland were 2.12 times more likely than White residents to be unemployed.
The result is that our most marginalized communities are having to choose between paying the fines and fees of incarceration or paying for their families’ basic necessities. Meanwhile, the practice provides little fiscal gain for the county, as collection rates are consistently low. In Alameda County, the average adult is charged over $6,000 in probation fees, but few can afford to pay. In fact, of the over $21 million in outstanding charges for adult probation fees in Alameda County as of August 2018, the Probation Department has only collected $798,718, which amounts to a measly 4 percent. None of these figures even take into consideration the costs to the county for assessing and collecting the fees.
Alameda County should be helping previously incarcerated individuals get back on their feet so they can positively contribute to society. Collecting fines and fees only heightens the risk that individuals will be reincarcerated and indeterminately punishes indigent individuals who have already served their sentences.
There is extraordinary momentum to end this senseless pattern. On Monday, Nov. 19, a statewide coalition launched a campaign to end administrative fees in California. Powered by dozens of member organizations throughout California who are committed to criminal fees reform, the coalition is pressing for changes in the ways our government raises revenues off the backs people experiencing poverty.
In light of too many stories like M.B.’s, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors should eliminate criminal justice administrative fees and reimburse individuals who have been wrongly assessed fees. This high pain, low gain practice does little for the county, disproportionately affects communities of color and makes it nearly impossible for people to get their lives back on track, even after having paid their debt to society.
We urge the Board of Supervisors to eliminate these fees and give Alameda County’s returning citizens a fair chance to get back on their feet upon coming home.
Nadia Kale, Kim Tran, and Megan Wang are clinical law students of the East Bay Community Law Center at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.