An Experiment in Decency

Financial Justice Project
Local governments and courts have long levied fines and fees, as a sanction for unlawful behavior and to cover costs. The Financial Justice Project is working to reduce or eliminate fines and fees that are unjust and abusive. Photo credit: Financial Justice Project
Reading Time: 17 minutes

A federal investigation following the 2014 protests in Ferguson, MO, revealed that much of the town’s budget was funded by fines and fees imposed on its impoverished residents.

Now, San Francisco has taken the lead in reducing or eliminating these monetary penalties that have trapped so many people in a cycle of poverty that can lead to imprisonment, more crime, and homelessness.

From jail exit fees to parking and tow charges, to suspension of driver’s licenses and garnishments for missing child support payments, San Francisco has restructured, or even  eliminated, its penalties for low-income offenders.

A homeless person unable to pay a $190 citation for sleeping on the sidewalk formerly faced additional penalties of $300. This was not only a cruel policy but also a highly ineffective one, as collection rates were low and it did not deter the “offensive” behavior. 

In this WhoWhatWhy podcast, we talk with Anne Stuhldreher, director of the Financial Justice Project for the City and County of San Francisco. 


The Ferguson Report. Part 1: Breathing While Black, and Other Offenses

The Ferguson Report, Part 2: African-Americans: No Longer Cash Cow for the City?

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Peter B. Collins : Welcome to another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins.
Peter B. Collins: Over five years ago when Ferguson, Missouri was the scene of ongoing protests after the police shooting of Michael Brown, one of the things the nation discovered is that this community, predominantly of people of color and living at or below the poverty line, was the subject of massive programs that loaded fines and fees onto the already, we could say, impoverished residents of Ferguson, Missouri. And this has led to an examination of the impact on poor people of driver’s license suspensions and other programs that disproportionately affect those with low incomes and limited resources.
Peter B. Collins: Joining me today is Anne Stuhldreher. She is the Director of the Financial Justice Project. It’s in the Office of the Treasurer for the City and County of San Francisco. And this is the first city in the nation to launch a Financial Justice Project to assess and reform how fines, fees, and financial penalties impact low-income residents. The reforms have lifted tens of millions of dollars in debt from tens of thousands of people and eliminated barriers to employment.
Peter B. Collins: Anne Stuhldreher, thank you for joining us today.
Anne Stuhldreher: Oh, thank you for having me, Peter.
Peter B. Collins: I think this is a remarkable effort and I’m very proud to see this originating in San Francisco. Tell us a little bit about your own background and what drew you to this job, running the Financial Justice Project.
Anne Stuhldreher: Peter, I think as you mentioned in Ferguson, Missouri, when we learned about the heavy toll of fines and fees on low-income communities, I was as surprised as anyone. I had always worked throughout my career to ensure that in government we were doing what we could to even the playing field, even the access to opportunities and to help people build up their economic reserves through things like expanding the earned income tax credit. When we learned the extent of how, on the other side of the government house, we are decimating the economic reserves of very low-income people through these fines, fees and penalties, we knew in San Francisco that we really wanted to do something about it, because it just seemed like it made no sense that these often times very large fines and fees that are assessed of very low-income people who cannot pay them, that we were not advancing the goals we want to achieve in government and we were digging many low income people into a hole that was hard to get out of.
Anne Stuhldreher: We hoped there was a better way to hold people accountable and not balance our budget on the backs of the lowest income people in our city. And so treasurer Jose Cisneros, who’s in charge of revenue for the city and County, launched the Financial Justice Project. And we’ve really been at it ever since.
Peter B. Collins: And Anne, I would argue that many of these fines and fees are not coordinated and the impacts are often not understood. And the net effect is that we often end up compounding the criminalization of poverty and homelessness. For example, a so-called quality of life citation for sleeping on a sidewalk might draw a fine of  about $190, but if the individual is unable to pay that they then get slapped with a $300 additional penalty. And if somebody couldn’t pay 190 bucks, it’s just irrational to say, “Well, the response we’ll take is: increase the fine.”
Anne Stuhldreher: I couldn’t agree with you more. As a lot of people know, we do have a crisis of homelessness on our streets in San Francisco and throughout California. We are not going to find our way out of this problem. It does not make sense to give someone a ticket for, as you said, a few hundred dollars, then slap a $300 late fee on it. We heard from many people, when we were looking at these, that the kind of record of the tickets sometimes created barriers to employment. I remember hearing that one woman who had one of these tickets and who had worked her way, had stabilized and was applying for a job at Starbucks, and the record of the ticket had come back to haunt her.
Anne Stuhldreher: So, we have done some things to address this in San Francisco, quality of life citations. Happy to talk more about that if it’s of interest.
Peter B. Collins: And how long has this program been underway? We know Ferguson was over five years ago. When did San Francisco begin to address these issues?
Anne Stuhldreher: About three years ago was when we started
Peter B. Collins: And if you tally it all up right now, how do you measure on that big a jumbotron scoreboard, the results of your efforts? Can you give us a quick thumbnail?
Anne Stuhldreher: Yes. At this point we have either eliminated or adjusted dozens of fines and fees that we found were having a disproportionate adverse impact on lower-income people and people of color. And again we found that no good oftentimes was really coming from these. They were hitting folks really hard in our community. A cascade of consequences could set in when people couldn’t pay them. As we mentioned, fines and fees can increase with late fees. Your credit score can be impacted, which makes it hard to get a job or to get into an apartment. Your driver’s license could be suspended.
Anne Stuhldreher: And then on the government’s side, when you charge people really steep fines and fees that they cannot pay, it’s not a very good source of collections or revenue for the city. So a lot of what we have eliminated, or created adjustments based on ability to pay for low-income people, have been on what we call these high pain, low gain fines and fees.
Peter B. Collins: And the cost of collection in many cases exceeds the amount of revenue. So in the big picture, have these changes substantially reduced revenue flowing into the coffers of San Francisco?
Anne Stuhldreher: They have not. And that’s the really, I think, interesting and counterintuitive perspective that I explain a lot of times to… We get a call about once a week from cities and counties around the country who are looking at this. Just to give a few examples, parking tickets are expensive in San Francisco. They can be around $75, they double through late fees. We know that the average American, if they were trying to come up with $400 in an emergency, about half simply couldn’t do it. So a lot of people who can’t pay these in San Francisco – yet we were charging people $65 to get onto a payment plan – when we eliminated and minimized those fees to $5 for people below 200% of the poverty line and eliminated the late fees which doubled them, when we did that and started a payment plan for low-income people, in the three months afterwards at our San Francisco MTA revenue went up.
Anne Stuhldreher: They collected more because there was a way that people could pay these and the participation in payment plans went up about 400%. To give one other example, I think a lot of people don’t understand that in this country, when people get out of jail or are in the criminal justice system, we hand them a bill with a lot of fees to pay for the costs of the criminal justice system. In San Francisco, we were charging people $50 a month to be on probation. Since they’re on for three years, we were charging them $1,800 up front. We were charging people up to $35 a day to rent their electronic ankle surveillance monitor and many fees for various:  getting fingerprinted, various lab tests, et cetera.
Peter B. Collins: Now, can I stop you there for a second? Just on the GPS ankle bracelet. Again, this seems to be so pernicious in many ways because the city is saving a huge cost of not having that individual in the county jail and that’s got to be several hundred dollars a day. And then to extract $35 from someone who is not causing the expense of being in the jail, it just seems to be a second type of punishment.
Anne Stuhldreher: That’s right. That’s right. Exactly. And, you know what,  people who are coming out of jail most of the time are unemployed, they have very little income and they simply cannot pay it. And Peter, you also pointed out that this is another layer of punishment and that’s exactly right, but the job of a fee is simply to recoup costs, they are not meant to be punitive. People in the criminal justice system or who’ve come out of jail have already paid many penalties. They have done time, they may be paying victim restitution, they may be paying fines. To heap all these fees on them that they couldn’t pay, just doesn’t make sense. There is research that shows that these fees can push people back to illegal activities.
Anne Stuhldreher: And again, from a collection rate, that largest fee, the monthly probation fee, the collection rate was just 9%. Some of these fees were bringing in so little money that the departments were not even budgeting for them, but they were hanging over tens of thousands of people in our region and the math just didn’t add up. So I’m really proud that we eliminated all of our local fees. We wrote off $32 million in debt that was owed by about 21,000 people. Other counties in California and now across the country are doing this and taking a hard look at this. And there is a statewide bill pending called the Families Over Fees Act that is looking to take this reform statewide. Because, again, this really doesn’t make sense as a source of revenue for our courts and criminal justice system.
Peter B. Collins: Well, it also seems that we need an accountability program or a government watchdog who analyzes the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of various fines, fees and other forms of punishment that we impose on people. And, fundamentally they’ve got to be rational from the point of view of the revenue collector, right? I mean, it’s just got to start there.
Anne Stuhldreher: Yes, yes. Again, I think sometimes fines and fees, we reach for them in government, they seem like they’re the fix that makes sense. And then, when you look at it more closely like, “Okay, what are we really achieving with this? Who is benefiting? Who is harmed? Are there other ways to hold people accountable?” we can often find a better solution.
Peter B. Collins: And Anne, one of the most important changes to me is ending the insidious extortion of requiring people in county jail and state prison to make collect phone calls at rates that are often triple or even five times the actual cost of that call. And we were told at the state prison level, “Oh, that money goes into the inmate fund, the inmate benefit fund.”
Anne Stuhldreher: Inmate Welfare Fund, yes.
Peter B. Collins: And in San Francisco in June of this year, the sheriff and the treasurer ended the charges for all phone calls from the jail. And this is just so basically reasonable, number one, there isn’t much expense to a phone call anymore. Number two, it normalizes communication between inmates and their relatives. And as you point out in one of the reports I scanned, the impact of these exorbitant phone call rates was mostly on low-income women of color trying to stay in touch with typically a male family member or a husband or boyfriend who has wound up in jail.
Anne Stuhldreher: That’s exactly right, Peter. And again, this is a good example of where in government we’re being like a penny wise and a pound foolish. I’m sure we bring in a little bit of revenue from these, but then when you look at it closely, again at the bigger picture, it really doesn’t make sense.
Anne Stuhldreher: So in San Francisco, the typical jail stay is 70 days. If someone was making a 15-minute call in the morning and evening, which I understand is fairly typical, it was about $300 over 70 days. And as you mentioned, our analysis showed that it was primarily people’s families and support networks who pay for these calls. And so, in San Francisco, when we were looking at this, we heard from so many women who were struggling between paying their PG&E bill and paying for these phone calls. We heard from formerly incarcerated people who remember being about to get out and they couldn’t call their family to let them know it was happening. They couldn’t call around to look for a job or for a place to live.
Anne Stuhldreher: So again, there’s a lot of research that shows the more people stay in touch with their family and their support network, the better they do when they get out.
Peter B. Collins: I think it also addresses an important security issue, which is the smuggling of cell phones into jails and prisons. And that creates concerns that gang members can communicate with people on the outside. And so to make the calls free, and I imagine they are still monitored or at least recorded-
Anne Stuhldreher: Yes, there are.
Peter B. Collins: … you address a significant security problem that has arisen since the introduction of cell phones.
Anne Stuhldreher: Yes, I would agree. That’s exactly right.
Peter B. Collins: So let’s talk about some of the other forms of relief that you have been able to engineer. 88,000 holds on people’s driver’s license, people who missed a traffic court date have been removed. And explain how this created a cycle of increasing poverty for people who were stuck in that situation.
Anne Stuhldreher: That’s exactly right. Again, it was this instance of kind of using this sledgehammer-collections-tool to suspend people’s driver’s licenses when they missed a court date or could not pay their traffic fines. That again, just doesn’t make sense. Without a driver’s license, it is very hard to get or keep a job. There was a study that showed in New Jersey that of people who had their license suspended within six months, about 40% of them were unemployed. As we looked closely at this in partnership with the courts, we found that people were missing traffic court dates. Oftentimes it was hard to know, understand when the traffic court date was happening. People were worried if they came and they couldn’t afford it, what would happen?
Anne Stuhldreher: And so that there were more effective things we could do: making sure the messaging was clear. And there’s evidence from around the country that if you text people their court date, they are much more likely to show up. It’s interesting, our courts were the first in the nation to stop suspending driver’s licenses for when people couldn’t pay their traffic tickets, which can be $500 in San Francisco. And since the court has done this, again, their collections have not gone down. They kind of shifted to sending people more reminders, they now send people monthly statements. And again, they also reduce people’s fines based on their ability to pay and people want to fulfill their obligations.
Anne Stuhldreher: If people are staring at a $500 bill, they sometimes can freeze and know there’s no way they can pay that, but if it’s $100, they oftentimes will be willing to pay that and then get on with their life. So again, I think that reform worked much better for people and for government. It was exciting to see that when San Francisco stopped suspending people’s driver’s license when they could not pay traffic tickets, other counties followed suit and Governor Jerry Brown eliminated that onerous penalty statewide.
Peter B. Collins: Well, and during the recession, Governor Schwartzenegger was desperate to generate more revenue, but he couldn’t get the legislature to increase taxes. And Grover Norquist told him he wasn’t allowed to and so they resorted to stacking more fees and fines onto certain violations. And the pinnacle of that was when Kevin Shelley carried the legislation for the red-light cameras that impose these $500 fines. And it’s like a Christmas tree where the money goes, the ambulance and the courts and the DNA database, all of that was being funded on the backs of violators. And nobody paused to think, “Well, what about the people who can’t afford to pay these fines?”
Anne Stuhldreher: That’s exactly right. And think about that, a $500 ticket, think about the different folks in San Francisco who get that ticket… I know how I started thinking about this, one of the ways was when I got a ticket at a stop sign near my house in San Francisco, I did not come to a complete stop but deserved a ticket. And I knew from people in my neighborhood who had gotten it that it was several hundred dollars. One of my neighbors who is a bartender had gotten that ticket and had a really hard time paying that.
Anne Stuhldreher: Mark Zuckerberg lives six blocks away from me in San Francisco. If he had gotten that ticket, it would not have been a big deal. So when we have these kind of fixed rate fines and fees, they hit people very differently in our community. And is that really what we want? Do we really want to be meting out such different consequences for folks where for some people, they don’t even blink, and for other people, you know they’re not going to be able to afford groceries that month?
Peter B. Collins: And Anne, since you’ve confessed to your stop sign violation, I’ll confess that I once came out to an expired meter and found that my car had been towed and it is such a sinking feeling, just that moment, okay? And then, I believe they’ve cleaned up the process a little bit, but I had to take a cab to the Hall of Justice to pay the fine and then I had to go somewhere else, I guess the tow yard to pick up the car. And not only did it suck up like four hours of time, but it cost about $600.
Peter B. Collins: And again, I am fortunate that I have the means to pay a fine like this. It’s painful, but it doesn’t cause me to tap my savings. But for people who live paycheck to paycheck, these are incidents that can really throw them into a downward economic spiral.
Anne Stuhldreher: That’s exactly right. And in San Francisco, about 10% of cars that are towed are never retrieved. And we think the main reason why is because some people simply can’t pay for it. And without a car it can be very hard to get to work, get to school, take your kids to school. Also for the city it is a money loser. We still have to pay the tow company. Look, we need to tow cars for public safety and traffic flow reasons, but a lot of tows happen in San Francisco. When people cannot pay their parking tickets, they can get towed. When their registration on their car is lapsed, they can get towed.
Anne Stuhldreher: And again, does that really make sense for what we’re trying to achieve in government or for that person? We did work with the MTA and again, we created discounts so that someone who is below 200% of the poverty line, their tow fee is cut in half and their boot fee, if they get a boot on their car is cut by about 80%. If Peter, if you or I got a boot on our car in San Francisco, it would cost $500. So now for people with the lowest incomes, it costs 100.
Peter B. Collins: Well, I think that’s reasonable. And I also think it still imposes a penalty, which hopefully will address the behavior that caused me to not put money in that meter.
Peter B. Collins: So one of the other efforts that I want to highlight relates to the way payments for child support, if the paying parent is delinquent, can end up taking away money from low-income children. Because there is this kind of convoluted situation when a low-income parent makes a child support payment, most of what they pay goes to the government to reimburse the cost of public benefits. And this ends up shortchanging the children who the child support payments were intended for in the first place.
Anne Stuhldreher: That’s exactly right. And I’m very glad you raised that because I think this is something that most people don’t understand. When we first started doing this work, at community forums, people would come up to me and say, “Can you please do something about child support?” And I remember, I’d say like, “Gosh, I don’t think we can,” and why we would not want to take away money from low-income children or children in poverty. And then the people would say, “No, that’s the problem. When I pay it, it doesn’t go to my kids. It goes to the government to pay back the cost of public assistance.” And then I started hearing a very similar story over and over again, which was, a young man would be placed into a job training program, say in the construction field. They would get their first paycheck and then the… they get their first paycheck and about half of it would be garnished.
Anne Stuhldreher: And at first they’d think, “Oh, okay. It’s for child support, it’s going to my children. Then they would hear from the mother of the child, “Actually, what are you talking about? I’m getting $50 and that’s it.” Yet several hundred dollars was being taken from the young man’s paycheck. That’s because we require, if that mother and child needed medical health insurance or other support, we require that it be paid back. When people cannot pay it back, we suspend their driver’s license, their credit report is decimated and it’s just unconscionable, I think.
Anne Stuhldreher: California last year collected about $368 million from hundreds of thousands of families. That money should be going to children. Whenever a parent makes a child support payment, all of it should go to their children, none of it should go to the government. And again, we should not be paying for our services in government on the backs of people who simply can’t afford it.
Peter B. Collins: Well, Anne, I’m really impressed with the work of the Financial Justice Project. I’ll just touch briefly, you’ve also helped to reduce the impact of people who couldn’t pay their water bill, had the water shutoff and the fees that it takes to get it turned back on. And I’m also touched that you’ve gotten free museum access for people who receive public benefits and rolled back or eliminated overdue library fines. It seems like this is a very comprehensive effort and I feel like we’re going to see it pay off over time in significant ways.
Anne Stuhldreher: Yeah, I think so too, Peter. I think the work has been very well received in the community, in San Francisco and within government. We’re learning. No, we’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished, there is more work to be done. And I do want to say, if there are other people out there who are working on this or interested in this, we would just love to hear from folks. We always learn something when we hear about people’s experiences with fines and fees or their ideas or things that are happening in their communities, I really would just love to hear from your listeners, hear what they think and hear the criticisms as well.
Anne Stuhldreher: I think we are a very punitive culture and sometimes people think, “Well, we should not be removing consequences.” And we’re not saying we should, we do think, however, that the consequence should fit the offense and the person and you should not pay a heavier consequence simply because your bank account is smaller.
Peter B. Collins: Well, I certainly second that and I think that you are doing incredible work. And I will, with your permission, include your email in the text that accompanies this podcast, your last name’s a little difficult for people to spell.
Anne Stuhldreher: Yeah, thank you.
Peter B. Collins: So, I’ll include that there. And if people want to get more information about what’s going on in San Francisco, feel free to contact Anne Stuhldreher. Anne, before we wrap up, you’re also working to export these ideas and these reform policies to other municipalities and jurisdictions. Explain a little bit about that please.
Anne Stuhldreher: Yes. I’m so excited that just yesterday we announced the launch of Cities and Counties for Fine and Fee Justice. This is a grant program where cities can apply for grants of $50,000 to take on meaningful fine and fee reform in their communities. As I mentioned, our office gets about a call a week from places around the country and what we want to do… And there are already other cities, Chicago, many others that are advancing similar reforms and we want to start a leadership group of cities and counties that are committed to and reforming a lot of this stuff, which again just doesn’t make sense for government or for people.
Anne Stuhldreher: The deadline to apply is in late February. So if you know people in city and county government who you think might be interested in this, please forward the information to them and I’ll make sure that Peter, that you have that.
Peter B. Collins: Well, I will include that link to the information about Cities and Counties for Fine and Fee Justice in the text that accompanies the podcast so people can easily link to that. Anne Stuhldreher, thank you very much for explaining the Financial Justice Project and I really appreciate your leadership in this effort.
Anne Stuhldreher: Thanks so much, Peter. I really enjoyed it.
Peter B. Collins: Thanks for listening to this Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast with Anne Stuhldreher. Send your comments to Peter And here’s where I ask you to be generous and support the work at WhoWhatWhy with a contribution.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from United States Mint / Wikimedia and United States Mint / Wikimedia.

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