The Aspen Financial Security Program (FSP) announced this week that Anne Stuhldreher will join FSP as a Senior Fellow. Anne is the Director of The San Francisco Financial Justice Project, the nation’s first effort embedded in government to assess and reform fines, fees, and financial penalties that disproportionately impact low-income people and people of color. In anticipation of Anne joining the team, she sat down with Ida Rademacher, vice president at the Aspen Institute, and executive director of the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program.
Ida Rademacher: Many people might not understand how fines and fees exact a heavy toll from people who are struggling. Can you tell us why San Francisco started The Financial Justice Project?
Anne Stuhldreher: Across the country, government and courts are becoming more reliant on fines and fees, sometimes to recoup costs. There’s often an insidious unintended impact of this practice—to push people into poverty. These fines and fees can knock people down so hard they can’t get back up. Poor people and people of color are usually hit the hardest.
In California, community groups sounded the alarm on people getting their driver’s licenses suspended because they could not pay traffic tickets; on people getting handed a bill for a few thousand dollars when they get out of jail; and on people losing their cars when they got towed when they could not pay a few hundred dollars to get them back. And these are just a few examples.
When people cannot pay fines and fees, unintended consequences set in. Late fees are added, credit scores go down, and driver’s licenses are suspended, which often leads to job loss. People face terrible choices—between paying their rent or their ticket. In 30 states, people with outstanding fine and fee balances are denied the right to vote. In some places, people are jailed for nonpayment. When half of all Americans say they cannot come up with $400 in an emergency, we know a lot of people struggle to pay fines and fees.
As we looked at this, it seemed crazy—like a lose-lose proposition, for government and for people. We thought that better solutions must exist, that hold people accountable without putting them in financial distress. And that don’t balance our books on the backs of the poor. Government and the courts should not be another driver of inequality. We should be an equalizer of opportunity.
We thought we could bring community groups together with government and court leaders to find better solutions, that would make a difference in people’s lives and are doable to implement. Under the leadership of San Francisco Treasurer José Cisneros, we launched The Financial Justice Project.
Ida Rademacher: What’s an example of a reform you’ve enacted?
Anne Stuhldreher: I’m very proud that San Francisco is the first county in the nation to eliminate all local administrative fees charged to people exiting jail and the criminal justice system. Many people do not realize that when individuals exit jail or the criminal justice system, they are often assessed thousands of dollars in administrative fees. The goal of these fees is to recoup costs for the courts and government. They’re not meant to be punitive, since the people receiving them have already paid other consequences, like going to jail. The reality is different. These fees are charged to very low-income people right when they’re getting back on their feet. Family members often have to chip in to pay. Research shows they increase the odds of recidivism and are an ineffective source of revenue for the city and county.
For example, in San Francisco we charged people $50 a month to be on probation, and billed them $1800 up front since people are typically on probation for three years. The collection rate for the probation fee was nine percent. Our courts wrote off $32 million in these “high pain/low gain” fees that were hanging over 21,000 families. Other California counties are now pursuing similar reforms and a coalition has formed to push for changes statewide.
Ida Rademacher: What do you want to accomplish during your tenure as a senior fellow with the Financial Security Program?
Anne Stuhldreher: It’s hard to believe that we launched The Financial Justice Project two years ago. We’ve enacted a range of reforms, many of which have never been done before. We’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t, and we’re still learning. We’re getting calls from local leaders all over the country about what we’re doing.
It’s a great moment for me to join Aspen FSP to do two things. First, I plan to write about ways to reform excessive fines and fees that can work better for people and government. I especially want to lift up the experiences of people who struggle to pay these fines and fees. Understanding the impact of fines and fees on their lives can lead us to the best solutions.
Second, I’m excited to join the community of changemakers you are building at FSP focused on advancing solutions to some of the most critical financial challenges facing American households. Across the country, there’s great energy to reform excessive fines and fees. Aspen is a great place to bring people together so we can learn from each other to strengthen the solutions being put forward across the country.
Ida Rademacher: What’s it going to take to bring real change and reform that reduces the unmanageable debt burden and financial spinout caused by fines and fees?
Anne Stuhldreher: I’m an optimist. I truly believe we can find solutions that work better for people and for government and the courts. We need to start by listening to each other. We need to listen to people making choices between paying their fines and fees or putting food on the table. We need to listen to front-line community workers who see people get knocked off balance by an unexpected fines and fees. And we need to listen our colleagues throughout government and the courts to understand what they’re aiming to achieve with various fees and financial penalties. It’s not always easy, but in San Francisco and in California we’ve found that when we come together and listen to each other we can advance changes that make a difference in people’s lives.
We also have an awareness gap. The general public and government leaders often don’t realize the extreme impact of fines and fees on people who cannot afford them. I’ve found that when people learn more about what’s happening, and that better solutions exist, they’re open to change.
More information on The San Francisco Financial Justice Project:
Financial Justice Project reports:
- San Francisco Fines And Fees Task Force: Initial Findings and Recommendations
- Do the Math: Money Bail Doesn’t Add Up for San Francisco
- Criminal Justice Fees: High Pain for People, Low Gain for Government
Financial Justice Project op-eds:
- San Francisco has become a predatory government, San Francisco Chronicle
- Charging ex-offenders ‘administrative fees’ means big pain for the poor and little gain for counties Los Angeles Times
- San Francisco just got rid of unfair criminal justice fees. Other counties should do the same. Sacramento Bee
- These people have been barred from voting today because they’re in debt Washington Post
- San Francisco needs to reform its bail system San Francisco Chronicle
- It’s self-defeating to bill parents for their children’s jail time Sacramento Bee
Financial Justice Project News Coverage:
- What San Francisco’s Reform Of Fees And Fines Can Teach Chicago. WBEZ Chicago
- San Francisco Program Aims To Make Fines More Fair For The Poor. National Public Radio
- San Francisco’s justice system gets a little more just. Washington Post
- SF Abolishes Criminal Justice Fees. The San Francisco Examiner
- Criminal justice system fees for 21,000 waived. The San Francisco Chronicle
- City says reduced fee for parking citation payment program boosting revenues. The San Francisco Examiner
- SF gives low-income people a break in city’s steep vehicle towing fees. San Francisco Chronicle
- Report: Bail Hits People of Color Hard, Strips $15 Million a Year From S.F. Residents. KQED’s California Report