High Pain, Low Gain: New Report Highlights Burden of Fines and Fees on San Francisco’s Low-Income Residents

Supervisor Jane Kim at the Fines and Fees Press Conference.

San Francisco’s Fines and Fees Task Force recently released a report summarizing the impact that fines and fees have on poor and homeless people. Created in late 2016, the task force was organized to provide advice to the city on how to reduce the negative impacts of fines, fees, tickets and other financial penalties on low-income residents.

First, the facts: Across the nation, fines and fees are spreading when Americans can least afford them. Many states and local governments, including California, use them as a way to balance public budgets. In practice, however, these fines simply end up pushing people deeper into poverty. It’s often the poor who are hit the hardest, and ironically the ones who are least able to pay.

People of color, in particular, are disproportionately affected. In San Francisco, the burden of these fines and fees falls heavily on the African American community. The numbers are shocking—African Americans make up less than 6 percent of the city’s population, yet they represent over half of the people who are in the county jail. Failure to pay fees often results in driver’s license suspensions, and, as a result, African American individuals represent more than 70 percent of people seeking legal assistance for driver’s license suspensions.

The Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco is a prime example of the biased system at work: It has a relatively high rate of poverty at 23.5 percent, the highest percentage of African American residents in San Francisco at 35.8 percent, and a driver’s license suspension rate more than three times the state average.

Fines and fees disproportionately impact poor people and people of color.

These fines and fees are a lose-lose proposition for both citizens and the government. The situation is often described by academics as ‘high pain, low gain,’ meaning fines generally impact poor people the most, while bringing in much less revenue than expected.

Del Seymour, the unofficial ‘Mayor of the Tenderloin,’ knows firsthand how these fines can impact those in poverty. Before adopting his prestigious nickname, Seymour was homeless for 18 years and spent his time in the Tenderloin collecting various tickets and fines he could not pay off.

“When I was on the streets, I was arrested six times for a $76 ticket,” Seymour says. And his story is not unique.

According to the Fines and Fees Task Force Report, San Francisco police gave over 15,000 “quality of life” citations in 2016 for things like camping on the street, sleeping on sidewalks, loitering or begging for money in public places—in short, for being homeless. Most tickets for these offenses start at a hefty $200, but that number can quickly rise when people aren’t able to pay on time or at all.

From there, the consequences only get more severe. Imagine you already have a $200 ticket, but you have no way of paying it off. You miss the payment deadline, so you’re hit with a $300 late fee on top of your original ticket. The City also suspends your driver’s license. Without proper identification, you lose your job. As your debt rises, your credit bureau is contacted. They decide to downgrade your credit, which means you won’t be able to apply for housing. Previous to last year, the court would issue a warrant for your arrest due to non-payments and the police would ultimately put you in jail to await your hearing, where you rack up even more fees because you’re unable to pay your entire bail amount.

You now have thousands of dollars in fees, a criminal record, no driver’s license and a grim outlook on future job or housing prospects—all due to one ticket.

San Francisco’s fee system is forcing people into a cycle of debt and incarceration.

“San Francisco’s fee system is forcing people into a cycle of debt and incarceration,” says District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim, who started the Fines and Fees Task Force with former District 11 Supervisor John Avalos. “[The City’s] income inequality is comparable to Rwanda’s. San Francisco should not be in the business of impoverishing low-income and working class families because of one mistake.”

And it’s not just those who are fined who suffer. The process is frustrating for everyone involved: Police are frustrated with responding to calls that are not related to crime; the City and County of San Francisco spends an estimated $20 million a year responding to just these types of incidents related to homelessness; the Courts waste precious time and resources processing thousands of minor citations instead of more serious offenses; and San Francisco residents and business owners are frustrated if they do not see this process helping people get off the streets and permanently exit homelessness.

The system is broken. But the good news is, the City knows it—and has a plan.

Based on their findings, the Task Force developed recommendations on how to mitigate the impact of fines and fees in six key areas. The biggest recommendation is to “base fine and fee amounts on an individual’s ability to pay, to ensure consequences do not place an inequitable burden on low-income San Franciscans.” These include things like offering community service options and flexible payment plans.

“Fines have to be based on justice, not because the City needs money,” says Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “People shouldn’t be forcibly kept away from their family and community just because they can’t pay a fee.”

Transportation fines were another key issue in the report. While the SFMTA boasts the most robust transit system in the country, many poor people are still dealt a huge blow if they cannot afford the $2.50 Muni fare. A Muni fare evasion ticket is $116; those who are fined do have the option to perform community service to clear the ticket, but must pay $75 to enroll in the community service program. Under the recommendations of the Task Force, the city will consider expanding community service and payment plan options, lowering fare evasion tickets and adding options to clear them.

But at the same time, the City continues to increase fees and fines: On July 1, enrolling in a community service program will increase to $78. A Muni fare evasion ticket will rise to $120.

Specific recommendations are also outlined for driver’s license suspensions, bail reform and child support debt. The full report and list of recommendations can be found on the San Francisco Treasurer’s website.

In truth, San Francisco has long been a leader in reforming fines and fees. The City was the first to eliminate fees to parents whose children are incarcerated. Most recently, Governor Jerry Brown introduced legislation to end the suspension of driver’s licenses for those who are unable to pay court fines and fees. San Francisco will continue to lead the charge, but some worry that other municipalities won’t follow suit. With cuts to federal grants on the horizon, cities could use fines as an easy way to bring in money. Governments often increase fines and fees when budgets are tight.

“People are just used to the way things work and don’t want to try something new,” says Scott Nelson, a member of the Fines and Fees Task Force. “But you can call your representatives and tell them you want change. They’re ultimately the ones who can persuade the agencies to take these recommendations.”

The task force remains hopeful. It hopes its recommendations will alleviate some of the pressures that fines and fees can cause. Instead of punishing people for being poor or homeless, the new plan allows for more flexible ways to pay or clear fines based on personal circumstances. Says the report, “Our goal is not to advocate for a lack of consequences. Our goal is to make the consequence fit the offense.”