California is leading the way to debt-free justice. Other states are expected to follow.



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After Police Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, national attention was drawn to the unfair and racist practice of local governments disproportionately imposing criminal fines and costs and circulation to members of black and brown communities to generate income. . Indeed, the subsequent investigation by the Ministry of Justice and The report found that the problems in Ferguson were systemic and notes that “officers appear to view some residents, especially those living in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Ferguson, less as voters to protect than as potential offenders and sources of income ”.

As advocacy organizations and policymakers across the country have since made progress in reforming fines and fees in recent years, we need to tell the story as it is: community members were and continue to be ahead of the game. In 2009, the The Los Angeles County Youth Justice Coalition released a report on the widespread impact of imposing fees on the families of young people who have been placed in juvenile detention centers. They rightly called for the only solution that would bring significant relief – the complete abolition of fees.

The abolition of criminal fees and the cancellation of the current debt is the only systemic and permanent solution to this form of racialized wealth extraction, and it is a solution our communities want and deserve. And this is what we say is the solution, as black and brown people who ourselves, and whose loved ones, continue to be the subject of targeted police, hyper surveillance, arrests. disproportionate and unfair punishments.

While this rationale alone should suffice, removing fees is also by far the fairest and most efficient process to address this issue. Institute a ability to pay mechanism – a process by which a person determines whether a person can afford to pay a fee – may appear to be beneficial. But the ability to pay is a less effective policy that places heavy bureaucratic burdens on individuals to “prove” their economic situation; it relies on the discretion of judges or other bodies of power (almost never a good thing for BIPOC communities), and it does not address the racism and prejudices embedded in the criminal justice system that will inevitably hamper the process. As the recent failure of the PPP program to reach black and Latin business owners shows, the last thing that will help black and brown communities is a complicated application and administrative process that is required to access help.

Abolition is the most honest tool at our disposal. This validates both how inherently broken the system is and demands a more progressive, pragmatic and restorative view of the future. The only way to stop the extraction of racialized wealth is to stop the extraction of racialized wealth, not to make dismantling more administratively onerous.

In recognition of this reality, last year, thanks to the work and advocacy of Debt Free Justice California Coalition in California became the first state to abolish more than 20 different criminal fees through the Family Fees Act, providing estimated relief of $ 16 billion to people across the country. State. This year, the governor and legislature have the option to continue that work through the Finish the Fees Act, which would eliminate the over 60 remaining fees that can still be billed to Californians.

The legislator included in its budget for the elimination of additional criminal costs, including unfair and disastrous civil assessment fees of $ 300 for default and failure to appear offenses. Eliminating these unnecessary and inefficient fees is an important step in creating a more just and equitable California. But the state has another opportunity to further improve policies that only serve to entangle individuals deeper into the criminal justice system. Namely, the issuance of warrants.

Advocates and affected communities are sounding the alarm that a collateral consequence of the elimination of civil assessment fees could be an increase in the number of judges invoking the penalty of arrest warrants when, for example, a person does not appear in court. This practice effectively makes an offense that was never intended to be punishable by jail time – such as a traffic violation – an offense that could result in someone in jail.

People don’t go to court to many reasons: lack of transportation or childcare; fear of losing their job for a missed job; medical problems; or they just never got the court notice in the first place. The issuance of an arrest warrant is unnecessary and blatant, especially when another very punitive tool is already in place – the trial in absentia. A trial in absentia is one in which legal proceedings take place without the presence of the individual; these proceedings often result in a guilty verdict, a severe penalty in itself.

Despite this reality, current California law contains many provisions that allow for the issuance of arrest warrants for traffic and other offenses. By abolishing civilian assessments, the state should also amend the penal code and the vehicle code to remove the possibility of arrest warrants for such violations, which only serves to exercise and increase the power of the police to offenses which, by definition, are neither crimes nor punishable by imprisonment. A recent LA history highlights the potential dangers of not eliminating this practice.

California is a pioneer in fines and fee reform with the passage of the Family Fee Act last year and now the End of Fee Act. But if arrest warrants remain in the highway and vehicle laws, we erase the gains we make towards racial and economic justice. Let us not be short-sighted in our actions. Other states are watching and learning from what we do. We hope that Governor Newsom and the legislature will build on this momentum and support what our communities say they need: the elimination of fees and the end of arrest warrants. This is a racial and economic justice problem that has been exacerbated by COVID, and these actions are in line with the governor’s own priorities of reducing child poverty in California and committing to racial justice. California has always been a leader in progressive change. Now is not the time to back down from this story, but to look at it so that other states can learn from us and follow our lead on fine and fee reform within our legal system.

The three authors she is on the board of directors of Debt Free Justice California.

Jhumpa Bhattacharya is vice president of programs and strategy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.

Stephanie Campos-Bui is Deputy Director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at Berkeley Law.

Brandon Greene is the Director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California.



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