Overcoming obstacles,” U.S. Army

December 13, 2018; The Independent (Livermore, California)

In theory, although rarely in practice, the incarceration system is supposed to rehabilitate. Just how far we are from those ideals is demonstrated by the fact that “the average adult on probation in Alameda County has faced over $6,000 in fees.” In other words, after serving time during which a prisoner may have been paid $1 an hour to fight California’s fires, there were more fees to pay after release. Is it any wonder that the recidivism rate in Alameda County—home to Oakland and with a total population of 1.663 million—has been close to 60 percent?

The good news is that on December 4th, Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors voted to end these fees. Probation fees had been assessed “for probation supervision, investigation reports, participation in the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program, and many more fees that extract wealth from low-income communities of color,” notes the Independent. The new policy and debt discharge will go into effect on January 4, 2019. In sum, the parolee debt, which will now be wiped clean, totaled $26 million countywide.

Up until now, explains the nonprofit East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) in a white paper released last month, the average parolee would have to pay a $90 a month fee to Alameda County for their supervision for an average of 60 months, plus $710 for a case investigation report, an amount that totals $6,110. According to EBCLC, in Alameda County 47 percent of parolees are Black in a county where 11.3 percent of residents are Black.

The vote in Alameda County follows a similar action in San Francisco last summer. In San Francisco, there was a two-step process, with the Board of Supervisors banning fees through legislation, followed by a Court order to wipe out the fee backlog in August. In San Francisco, at the time of the Superior Court order to forgive the fees, 21,000 parolees owed a total of $32 million.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Trisha Thadani profiled the case of David Ladd, age 57:

It had been seven years since he was released from San Francisco County Jail, where he had served time for a felony, and he thought he could continue with his life. But then, out of nowhere, he said, he got a bill from San Francisco Superior Court for $2,725 in administrative fees: a $135 booking fee, a $240 restitution fine, $1,800 in probation costs and so on.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God,’ I’m going to have to cut back on a few things,” Ladd, 57, said. “That’s a whole month’s rent.”

At the time that the fees were forgiven in San Francisco, Mayor London Breed remarked, “We should be actively helping people to get their lives back on track after they have paid their debt to society. Garnishing the wages of people facing the challenging task of securing employment and housing can make that impossible.”

Theresa Zhen, supervising attorney at EBCLC, notes that she has “worked with far too many clients whose life savings were wiped out by criminal justice debt.” The EBCLC white paper itself tells many stories of these clients. For example, one story the paper profiles is of M.B., a recipient of food stamps and Social Security “who was living in a sober living facility when the Franchise Tax Board levied the entirety of her bank account to satisfy criminal justice debt in the amount of over $1,800. This sum had taken her months to save up from her public assistance dollars and help from family and friends. She had been planning to find a place of her own after becoming sober.”

These practices extend beyond California, however. In Massachusetts, for example, “With an average probation sentence of 17-20 months, a Massachusetts resident sentenced to probation is charged between $850-$1,300 in monthly probation service fees alone—on top of many other court fines and fees,” reports the Prison Policy Institute. A national report from the Brennan Center for Justice, issued back in 2010 and titled Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry, found similar practices in 15 states representing 60 percent of all state criminal findings.

There remains, in short, a lot to be done, but the policy changes enacted in San Francisco and Alameda County are a start. “The elimination of these fees is a step toward ending the cycles of poverty and incarceration,” remarks Eric Henderson, Policy Associate at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “These fees impact families and low-income communities in ways that take generations to recover from.”—Steve Dubb