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Supervisors back proposal to end SF court fees

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Legislation set to come before the Board of Supervisors would eliminate fees for probation and electronic monitoring of those released from jail. Shown here is an electronic ankle monitor attached to Kenneth Humphrey, 64, who was released from jail Thursday after a court order. (Kevin Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco is slated to stop collecting fees mostly levied on low-income individuals who have cycled through the criminal justice system under legislation that cleared a Board of Supervisors committee Thursday.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed authored the proposed ordinance to eliminate fees associated with probation and electronic monitoring. The fees are thought to keep people who may have already served time for a crime from moving forward in life.

The proposal would also urge the San Francisco Superior Court to write off $15 million in unpaid fees that The City imposed on around 20,000 people between 2012 and 2017, according to Anne Stuhldreher, director of the Financial Justice Project within the Treasurer’s Office.

While a Budget and Legislative Analyst report found that eliminating the fees would cost San Francisco an estimated $1.2 million in lost revenue a year, proponents at the Budget and Finance Sub-Committee hearing argued that the benefits “far outweigh” the costs.

“We believe that’s a tradeoff that makes sense,” Stuhldreher said. “These fees are high pain for people and low gain for government.”

Stuhldreher said the fees contribute to recidivism in the criminal justice system, driving people toward “underground economies” in search of “quick solutions to come up with large amounts of cash.”

The fees can saddle a person with debt, with probation costing an individual as much as $1,800 in one-time fees and $600 annually, according to the BLM report.

Stuhldreher said the Public Defender’s Office and District Attorney’s Office plan to petition the courts to eliminate outstanding fees stemming back to 2012.

“It is in the interest of public safety that the fines and fees are eliminated,” said Nikesh Patel, a spokesperson for District Attorney George Gascon. “When you impose these fines and fees, it makes it very [difficult] for them to reenter society without finding a quick fix.”

Donna Mandel, a policy analyst with the Public Defender’s Office, said between 80 and 90 percent of criminal defendants in San Francisco are considered indigent, or poor.

“These fees create obstacles for people who are trying to move on and lead productive lives,” Mandel said.

Meanwhile, San Francisco is estimated to bring in just around $700,000 in probation fees a year. The City also collects about $200,000 annually in electronic monitoring fees, but San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy has already stopped collecting those fees separate from the ordinance.

“This is something that we need to do,” Hennessy said, adding that her department also recently scrapped a $2 fee for depositing cash with inmates in County Jail. “This is a way that we are doing a lot of work in the criminal justice system to make it more equitable.”

Supervisors Malia Cohen, Katy Tang, Jeff Sheehy, Norman Yee, Ahsha Safai, Sandra Fewer and Catherine Stefani have already signed on to support the legislation alongside Breed.

Breed, who is one of the frontrunners in the mayoral race, said San Francisco would become the first in the country to eliminate the fees.

“This is just a first step to many things that we need to do to reform our criminal justice system,” Breed said.

The proposal would only eliminate certain fees imposed by San Francisco, not the state.

The Board of Supervisors will vote on the legislation at a later date.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

This story has been updated to clarify that the legislation would eliminate only fees, not fines. The quote from Anne Stuhldreher has also been updated to show that she said “pain” and not “paying,” as originally stated.

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