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California counties end burdensome court fees—and some states limit them.

For people caught up in the criminal justice system, the requirement to pay numerous criminal justice administrative fees, often amounting to thousands of dollars, can present an insurmountable obstacle to reentry. Such fees also encumber their families—a burden that lands particularly on women with incarcerated loved ones, according to a May report by the Essie Justice Group.Gina Clayton, Endria Richardson, Lily Mandlin, and Brittany Farr, Because She’s Powerful: The Political Isolation and Resistance of Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones (Los Angeles & Oakland, CA: Essie Justice Group, 2018), 12.

This year, San Francisco County became the first county in the nation to eliminate fees for probation and other administrative costs.San Francisco Ordinance No. 131-18, “Administrative Code – Criminal Justice System Fees and Penalties” (2018); and Trisha Thadani, “Criminal Justice System Fees for 21,000 Waived,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 23, 2018. The ordinance went into effect July 1, but it was not retroactive, so it did not cover the more than 21,000 people who at the time owed outstanding fees.Thadani, “Criminal Justice System Fees for 21,000 Waived,” 2018. But in October, the San Francisco Superior Court issued an order waiving their fees too, amounting to more than $32 million.Thadani, “Criminal Justice System Fees for 21,000 Waived,” 2018; and “San Francisco Waives $32 Million in Administrative Court Fees for 21,000 People,” TheGrio, August 30, 2018. Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation named the San Francisco reform a finalist for its Innovations in American Government Award.Harvard Kennedy School, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation (Ash Center), "Ash Center Announces Finalists for Innovations in American Government Award," press release (Cambridge, MA: Ash Center, July 23, 2018). In November, Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors followed San Francisco’s lead, voting to also eliminate such fees.Peter Hegarty, “Alameda County Eliminates Some Criminal Justice Fees that Saddle Inmates,” East Bay Times, November 20, 2018.

Los Angeles County, too, eased burdens for families this year: in October, it stopped collections on nearly $90 million in debts owed by people whose children had been involved in the juvenile justice system.Nina Agrawal, “L.A. County to Stop Collecting Old Juvenile Detention Fees, Erasing Nearly $90 Million Of Families' Debt,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2018. While a new state law effective January 1 had prevented counties from imposing certain court costs and fees on families, many people had outstanding fees from previous years.Nina Agrawal, “L.A. County to Stop Collecting Old Juvenile Detention Fees, Erasing Nearly $90 Million Of Families' Debt,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2018.; and California SB 190 (2017). And in January, Contra Costa County sent letters to more than 3,200 people who had paid cost of care fees for juvenile detention informing them they may be eligible for refunds, which county staff estimate will total approximately $136,000.Contra Costa County, California, “Juvenile Care Fee Refunds,”; and Sam Richards, “Fees Paid by Juvenile Inmates to Be Refunded in Contra Costa County,” East Bay Times, December 12, 2017.

As part of its 2018 criminal justice reform package, Massachusetts now requires courts to take into account a person’s ability to pay fines, fees, or restitution before setting them and has eliminated many parole fees.Massachusetts SB 2371 (2018), §§ 145, 158, 166, 206 & 211. Idaho also reduced burdens related to court-ordered fines and fees. The state enacted HB 599 in March, which ends the suspension of drivers’ licenses for failure to pay such costs and also decriminalizes driving without privileges from a misdemeanor to an infraction.Idaho HB 599 (2018). According to the ACLU, driving without permission had been the most charged misdemeanor in the state, impacting about 13,000 people per year, and included mandatory jail sentences.ACLU of Idaho, “2018 – HB 599 Driving without Privileges Reform,” Maine also took action on drivers’ license offenses in July, ending the automatic suspension of licenses for non-driving offenses—including missed fine payments—when the legislature overwhelmingly overrode former Governor Paul LePage’s veto of LD 1190.Maine LD 1190 (2018); ACLU of Maine, “Legislature Overrides Veto of Bill to End Automatic License Suspensions for Unpaid Fines; and Oamshri Amarasingham, “Victory! Maine Ends Automatic License Suspensions,” July 22, 2018, updated December 13, 2018, ACLU of Maine.