Affordable Justice: Debt Free SF

We all know how the housing crisis has spiraled out of control; affordability is on everyone’s agenda in San Francisco. What we often forget is that there is an intricate web of systems that lead to poverty and homelessness in San Francisco. One of these is the court system and the way it operates. On February 25th, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee met and discussed the issue of municipal fines and fees, their impact on low-income and homeless residents, and solutions moving forward.

Court-ordered debt is an obstacle that is preventing too many homeless and low-income people from being able to support themselves and their families. This includes traffic tickets and so-called ‘quality of life’ citations. The inability to pay your fine or appear in court results in a vicious cycle of debt and poverty.

Low-income people with traffic court debt essentially face a permanent license suspension and find themselves locked out of the workforce as a result. Many jobs require driving as a core function, such as delivery or transport, or as a necessary component of the work, such as travel between job sites. For many other employers, a valid driver’s license is seen as an indicator of reliability, and applicants without one are simply screened out of the applicant pool. The impact is that too many people are ready and able to work, yet they’re stuck relying on income support because they cannot access stable jobs.

The problem of license suspensions is particularly severe for people who have been involved in the criminal justice system. For example, a past arrest or incarceration may have caused a person to fail to appear at a court date on a driving ticket. Unfortunately, once the initial court date has been missed, an additional assessment of $300 is added to the ticket, and the full amount must be posted as “bail” before that person can appear before a judge or make a written request to excuse the failure to appear. In this way, having money becomes a precondition to due process. It is extremely difficult for people reentering society from jail or prison to collect this amount of money up front.

Burdening people in the process of reentering the community is directly at odds with San Francisco’s progressive reentry policies and goals.

San Francisco has more anti-homeless laws than any other city in California—23 ordinances banning sitting, sleeping, standing, and begging in public places. Political disputes over these laws are well known. Ticketing for violation of anti-homeless laws is on the rise. Since 2011, the SFPD has nearly tripled the number of citations issued for sleeping, sitting, and begging from issuing 1,231 tickets in 2011 to 3,350 in 2013 (Coalition on Homelessness).

Most homeless people can’t and don’t pay the fine. Some try to resolve their fine through confusing requirements of documenting hours spent receiving social services or doing community service. Some had tried to resolve it through the courts, but had missed their initial court date, resulting in additional fines and fees. Others with serious mental are unable to process the arduous steps. Many aren’t informed of alternate options. As a result, many don’t know how to resolve this issue and therefore don’t do anything.

Housing is also affected by citations, as unpaid fines damage credit. This can disqualify applications for housing. This is an incredibly difficult system and the process of navigating it is punishment enough.

We need a path forward, so that low-income residents can have their debt eliminated and people can get back to work.

Debt Free San Francisco is a coalition working to eliminate the impacts of court-ordered debt on our communities, and urges the City and County of San Francisco to end the practices that result in crippling debt. We need to address the following in order to truly impact debt:

  • Eliminate the use of license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees.
  • Terminate all contracts with private debt collectors and establish a fair and just approach to debt collection for San Francisco.
  • Urge the San Francisco Superior Court to allow low-income San Franciscans to clear past debt through a debt-relief court calendar and dismiss court-ordered fines and fees for low-income people.
  • Allow people to access the courts without regard to income.
  • Dismiss all outstanding bench warrants for people appearing voluntarily in court.
  • Allow people who failed to appear in court to request relief from any imposed civil assessment (a $300 fee) without having to first pay that assessment as “bail.”
  • Allow people who failed to appear in court to schedule new court dates.
  • Provide alternatives to full, lump-sum payment for low-income people.  This includes expanding access to community service options to include participation in social services and educational or job training programs.

Debt Free San Francisco is made up of Community Housing Partnership, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Coalition on Homelessness, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, All of Us or None!, and Bay Area Legal Aid. Check out their Facebook page,