MARTINEZ, Calif. (BCN) - The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors placed an indefinite moratorium on county imposed fees and fines affecting defendants going through the criminal justice system in a legislative move Tuesday that advocates claim is likely to improve community safety by reducing recidivism.
The county authorizes the fees, but then it's up to the bench to impose them, and to grant waivers for those who do not have the ability to pay. Public defenders say those waivers are not granted fairly and evenly from one courtroom to another, which Supervisor Karen Mitchoff argued was a matter for the bench. But advocates say the board still has sway over whether they get imposed in the first place.
The fees generate about $1.8 million per year, according to county staff, but that's only a fraction of the total imposed. People going through the system are typically low income, and the fees imposed on them often go unpaid.
Those financial debts to the county follow defendants around for years, limiting access to jobs and housing for ex-convicts and contributing to their odds of being incarcerated again.
Supervisors Candace Andersen and Mitchoff, who cast both dissenting votes when Board Chair John Gioia called the question, were vocal in their apprehensions about the proposal.
Mitchoff argued that this was a matter for the courts to wrestle with, and defendants can apply for a fee waiver. She also had concerns that taxpayers would have to make up for any revenue gap created by the moratorium, a prospect about which her constituents were enthusiastically
Andersen questioned the assertion that fines and fees imposed in Contra Costa County criminal courts affected low-income people and minorities. Specifically, she wanted county-specific ethnic and economic data about the affected defendants. She also had questions about how many affected
individuals had applied for fee waivers from the court, and how many of those waivers had been granted.
Both dissenting supervisors blasted a lack of supporting data in the staff report prepared on the matter, and Mitchoff called it "woefully inadequate" in that regard -- which is available online
-- but subject matter experts stated during public comment that the data requested may not exist.
"I understand your wish for more data, but there is no magic database in the county that ... can spit out the data you're looking for," said Rebecca Brown from Reentry Solutions Group, which advocates on issues affecting the formerly incarcerated.
That information is not adequately tracked, according to Brown, though it could be in the future. Meanwhile, an inability to pay those fees often prevents people from getting off of probation or clearing their records.
"It's bad public policy," Brown said. "The fact that bad public policy generates revenue is not sufficient."
With regards to revenue generation, data available from other jurisdictions suggests that the vast majority of the fines and fees imposed are never collected from defendants.
"We found they were a really terrible source of revenue," said Christa Brown, manager for the Treasurer and Tax Collector for the City and County of San Francisco. "We found the collection rate for the largest fee, the probation fee, was 9 percent... and that 90 percent of the fees went
After a lengthy and occasionally contentious debate, Supervisor Federal Glover made a motion to move forward with the moratorium, and Gioia seconded the motion -- which passed with support from Supervisor Diane Burgis.
County staff has been directed to research the matter further, and to look into options for halting collections activity on old debts conducted by Linebarger Goggan Blair and Sampson, the court's collection agency.