The San Francisco Public Library is likely to forgive more than $1 million in overdue fines owed by nearly 250,000 patrons.

Library set to write off more than $1.5 million in overdue fines

The San Francisco Public Library Commission has already recommended eliminating library fines, but on Thursday it voted to forgive existing fines as well.

The decision comes as the San Francisco Public Library is on the verge of a new fine-free chapter, after officially recognizing the punitive practice creates an “unfair barrier to access, which disproportionately impacts residents of lower socioeconomic status.”

Those who owe more than $10 in overdue fines and fees lose their borrowing privileges until the debt is paid.

“Based on recent data, the library has determined that the outstanding liability related to overdue fines is a barrier to access to 17,548 patrons whose borrowing privileges are suspended, and a financial burden to an additional 231,021 patrons who have fines but are not blocked,” said a March 18 memo from Michael Lambert, acting city librarian.

The next step is for the Board of Supervisors to approve legislation recommended by the commission to go fine free and erase existing debt. In January, the commission had voted to go fine free, a decision supported by Mayor London Breed

That means that come this fall, when the legislation is expected to take effect, patrons will start with a clean slate at the same time no more overdue fines will be charged.

“This is a social justice, an equity, an inclusivity gesture,” said Library Commission President Mary Wardell-Ghirarduzzi.

Currently, 248,569 patrons owe $1.57 million in fines. That would be wiped from the books.

“This would effectively allow us to write off over $1.5 million in overdue fines and debt and welcome back tens of thousands of patrons who have stopped using the library,” Lambert said.

He said that other libraries that were “trailblazers in eliminating overdue fines” also decided to erase outstanding debt, including Salt Lake City Library and Denver Public Library.

While the fines would be wiped from the books, patrons would still have to return the materials or pay replacement fees.

When the library goes fine free, patrons will still be expected to return books by deadlines. They would have to pay replacement fees if they are not able to return the items, such as if they were lost or damaged.

For longtime public library advocate Peter Warfield, co-founder of the Library Users Association, the “gesture” doesn’t go far enough.

He said that the library should also address fees for lost or damaged items and suggested they create a non-money program to allow patrons to somehow work it off.

Fees range depending on the item. A laptop fee is $500 for replacement, for example, an adult hardcover book is $35 and a DVD is $20.

“We have advocated for a fine-free system for a long time,” Warfield. “Fees are very serious burden on library patrons and they have all the bad impacts that fines do in terms of scaring people off, in terms of ending people’s borrowing careers.”

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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