Financial Justice Project Accomplishments

The accomplishments we list below are not ours alone. We achieved them through working in partnership with community groups, legal service providers, and the leadership of government department and the courts. 

Eliminated administrative fees charged to people exiting jail and the criminal justice system.

The context: People exiting jail, or the criminal justice system are often charged thousands of dollars in administrative fees and surcharges that aim to cover costs. In San Francisco people could be charged a $50 monthly probation fee (usually $1,800 upfront for a three-year term), $35 a day to rent their ankle monitor, $135 to get booked into jail, as well as fees to pay for investigations, reports, and other tests. These fees are charged to very low-income people who cannot afford to pay them, disproportionately are charged to people of color, create barriers to re-entry, and are a counterproductive, anemic source of revenue. The collection rate on the largest fee, the monthly probation fee, was just nine percent. 

 The reform: In July of 2018, San Francisco became the first county in the nation to eliminate all locally controlled fees assessed from people exiting jail or the criminal justice system. The ordinance, authored by then Board of Supervisors President London Breed (now Mayor of San Francisco) was passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors, and had the support of San Francisco’s District Attorney, Public Defender, Sheriff, and Chief of Adult Probation. After the ordinance passed, the city worked with the courts to waive $32.7 million in debt stemming from these fees that was owed by approximately 21,000 individuals.

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Reduced city’s steep tow and boot fines for lower-income San Franciscans.

The context: San Francisco’s towing fines are the highest in the country, averaging $557. Ten percent of cars were never retrieved, presumably because people could not afford to get them out. Getting towed can be devastating for people with lower incomes, who sometimes must decide between paying their rent or paying to get their car back.

The reform: San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority voted unanimously in June 2018 to deeply discount tow and boot fines for San Franciscans who earn below 200% of the Federal Poverty Line (about $50,000 for a family of four)—covering about 25% of households in San Francisco. With the new reform, the boot removal fine is discounted from $500 to $100, and the tow fee is discounted from over $550 to $220- the hard cost of the tow or the amount the city pays the tow company. The reform also allows eligible individuals to pay off any underlying tickets on payment plan over time, or through community service.

In 2020, the SFMTA voted to further reduce towing and boot fees. They created:

  • A new, $0 tow and boot removal fee for people experiencing homelessness 
  • A reduced boot removal fee of $75 for people below 200% of the federal poverty level (down from the standard boot fee of $525)
  • A reduced tow fee of $100 for people below 200% of the federal poverty level (down from the standard tow fee of $574). 

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Expanded access to free transit for people experiencing homelessness.

The context: The community organizations we work with shared that many of their clients either do not take the bus, or ride without paying, because they cannot pay even the discounted monthly fare of $40, which in some cases represents more than a third of their monthly income. For example, for a low-income people who is struggling with homelessness and receives general assistance, they would need to spend half of their monthly benefit of $90 to purchase a $40 discounted bus pass. Numerous community organizations noted that their constituents who could not afford to pay were receiving fare evasion tickets, a $105 citation. In San Francisco, over 50,000 fare evasion citations are handed out each year. After discussions with SFMTA staff, we conducted a survey of more than 20 nonprofits that serve people living in deep poverty to better understand the potential fiscal impact of offering Muni passes to people living in deep poverty. We asked the nonprofits to estimate of the people they serve that live in deep poverty (less than $16,000 a year in income), how many currently ride Muni without paying. 84% indicated that their clients often or always ride without paying, and 89% indicated that their clients sometimes do not take transit because they cannot afford the fare.

The reform: In April 2020, the SFMTA Board voted to create a new, free Muni pass for people struggling with homelessness. Anyone enrolled in the city’s coordinated entry system would qualify for the free pass.

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Ended and cleared all “poverty penalty” driver’s license suspensions for people who missed traffic court dates.

The context: Tens of thousands of local residents had their driver’s license suspended, not for a driving violation, but because they could not afford to pay traffic fines, or they missed a traffic court date.  According to a 2015 report, “Driver’s License suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, further impeding their ability to pay their debt. They harm credit ratings. They raise public safety concerns. Ultimately, they keep people trapped in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome.” The San Francisco Superior Court estimated that 88,000 residents had a suspended driver’s licenses because they failed to appear (FTA) in court to pay traffic citations. Court leadership and legal aid attorneys agree that people do not appear for their traffic court dates primarily because they cannot afford to pay their citations. According to several legal service providers on the SF Fines and Fees Task Force, people are often concerned that they will be sent to jail or someone would physically take their driver’s license away if they appeared in court. The San Francisco Courts recently adopted an official policy to stop this practice, because they believed suspending driver’s licenses placed an undue burden on low-income San Franciscans.

The reform: The Mayor’s Budget Office and The Financial Justice Project collaborated with the San Francisco Court to lift all outstanding driver’s license holds for missing a traffic court date. A broad array of legal aid and community organizations helped advance this reform. In April of 2020, The Financial Justice Project released “Driving Toward Justice”- the report finds that ending the use of license suspensions for failure to pay did not impact collections. In fact, collections per ticket filed went up in the years after the reform.

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Allow people struggling with homelessness to clear “Quality of Life” citations by receiving social services.

The context: San Francisco Police gave over 15,000 citations for “Quality of Life” incidents in 2016. These citations are often for offenses like sleeping or camping where it is prohibited, blocking a sidewalk, loitering, or having an open container of alcohol. Most of the tickets start at $200 and grow to nearly $500 when people are unable to pay them on time. A report found that 90% of tickets go unpaid, not because people do not want to pay the fines, but because they are too poor to do so. Community organizations shared how the record of these citations created barriers to jobs and housing for people struggling with homelessness.  

The reform: Through the fines and fees task force, our first recommendation was for SFPD to issue written warnings rather than citations when responding to Quality of Life infractions. For people that did receive the citations, we also wanted to create a clear and simple way to clear the citation through receiving services. The CONNECTion To Services Program (The CONNECT Program) grew out of the District Attorney Office’s participation in the San Francisco Fines and Fees Task Force. The District Attorney’s Office collaborated with the Financial Justice Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Legal Services for Children, The San Francisco Superior Court, and others to develop this program. Through The CONNECT Program, people struggling with homelessness can now clear all outstanding quality of life citations if they receive 20 hours of social services help from a provider of their choice.

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Cut fees and created low-income payment plan to make it easier for low-income people to pay off parking tickets and other citations.

The context: The SFMTA, San Francisco’s transportation agency, has long offered community service and payment plan options to pay off parking tickets and other citations. However, we heard through the Fines and Fees Task Force that these options were often inaccessible to low-income people. SFMTA charged an upfront $62 fee to enroll in a payment plan, and a $75-$155 fee to enroll in community service, depending on the dollar value of the ticket. These fees, which were paid in addition to paying or working off the cost of the ticket, made these options inaccessible to low-income people. 

The reform: In March 2018, SFMTA reformed their policies to make it easier for low-income people to pay off parking tickets and other citations. The payment plan enrollment fee was reduced to $5 for people below 200% of the federal poverty level, and the community service enrollment fee is waived once per year. People who enroll in and successfully complete the low-income payment plan can also have all of their late fees waived, which double the price of the ticket. In 2018, the State of California passed AB503. The bill requires jurisdictions to offer payment plans and limits the enrollment fee to $5 for indigent individuals and $25 for all other individuals. San Francisco’s reforms build on this legislation, expanding the criteria for who is considered indigent, and cutting additional fees. During the first three months of offering these discounts, people participating in payment plans increased 400%, and revenue increased compared to the same period the previous year.

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Made it easier for lower-income people to pay traffic court fines and fees by basing them on people’s ability to pay.

The context: California traffic tickets are among the priciest in the nation, often exceeding $500, and many low-income residents struggle to pay them. A 2017 study by the Federal Reserve found that more than 40% of Americans could not cover a $400 emergency expense without selling something or borrowing money. When someone can’t afford to pay, a series of consequences set in. The debt can be referred to the Franchise Tax Board, wages can be garnished, tax returns intercepted, and bank accounts levied.

The reform: In late 2018, The San Francisco Superior Court adopted advisory guidelines to relieve the burden of traffic fines and fees on people who cannot pay them. Under the new guidelines, people with incomes below 250% of the Federal Poverty Level (approximately $60,000 a year for a family of four) can get their citations discounted by 80% or more. People can also pay off the balance through a payment plan or by performing community service. We also worked closely with the courts to streamline the ways they verify incomes, to make the processes easier for people to navigate and simpler for courts staff to administer. People are now allowed to show their benefits cards (SNAP, TANF, Medi-CAL) to verify eligibility.  We also worked with the Courts to revise their Ability To Pay application form. People can apply for the discount online, in person, or by mail, and can submit an application even if the citation is past due and in collections.

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Made phone calls from jails free and eliminated jail store price markups to reduce financial burden on individuals in county jails and their loved ones.

The context: Across the country, it’s a common practice in jails and prisons to mark up prices for phone calls and jail store items. Phone call and jail store/commissary costs are a significant economic drain on low-income people. In San Francisco, if someone made two 15-minute phone calls a day, it would cost $300 over 70 days (the average jail stay) or $1,500 over the course of the year. In total, people in the San Francisco county jails and their families paid more than $1.7 million each year in phone call costs and commissary markups. Research shows the cost is most often borne by low-income women of color. In a national survey of incarcerated people and their families, eighty-two percent of survey participants reported that family members were primarily responsible for phone and visitation costs. Of the family members who were responsible for the costs, 87% were women. Increased communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones decreases recidivism, and improves reentry outcomes after release. Phone calls are people’s lifelines to their support networks. Staying in touch with family and support networks helps people get through their time in jail; maintain family ties that they will need when they get out; find work; and plan for a place to live. 

The reform: In June 2019, San Francisco announced it would make all phone calls from jail free and end all county markups on jail store items. San Francisco will no longer generate revenue from incarcerated people and their loved ones. Items in the jail store decreased by an average of 43%. The Financial Justice Project worked with community-based organizations to conduct a survey of more than 700 people in the San Francisco jail to inform implementation of the free phone call policy.

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Eliminated Overdue Library Fines and cleared $1.5 million in outstanding debt from these fines.

The context: In 2019, The Financial Justice Project and the Library released a report titled “Long Overdue: Eliminating Fines on Overdue Materials to Improve Access to San Francisco Public Library.” Through interviews with librarians across the country, surveys of library staff and patrons, and analysis of library data, the report finds that overdue library fines restrict access and exacerbate inequality, create conflict between patrons and the library, and do not improve on-time return rates. Libraries nationwide are going fine-free, since fines keep low-income people out of libraries and disproportionately impact low-income people. Five percent of adult card holders of the San Francisco library had their library cards blocked because they owed late fines. Our findings suggest that patrons across the city — regardless of income — miss return deadlines at similar rates. However, patrons in low-income areas face much more difficulty in paying the fines and fees associated with overdue items. As a result, overdue fines can widen existing inequalities: 11.2 percent of cardholders in the Bayview branch (which has relatively high rate of poverty (23.5%), and the highest percentage of Black residents in San Francisco) are blocked from accessing library materials, more than three times as many as in high-income locations. Across the city, branches that serve lower-income populations have a greater share of blocked patrons. Furthermore, late fines do not encourage patrons to return books. Better ways exist such as more frequent reminder notices and allowing people to autorenew books. 

The reform: On January 17th, 2019 the San Francisco Public Library Commission voted to eliminate fines on overdue materials. The proposal was approved by the Board of Supervisors in June of 2019, and the library discharged more than $1.5 million in outstanding debt from overdue fines, and restored access to more than 17,500 library patrons.

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Launched SF Museums For All to provide free access to San Francisco museums for low-income San Franciscans

The context: San Francisco is home to some of the world’s greatest cultural institutions—from the SFMOMA to the De Young to the Academy of Science. Many families in San Francisco, however, cannot afford the high entrance fees to visit these and other institutions, which can range from $20 to $150 for a family of four to visit. 

The reform: In partnership with Mayor London Breed, The Financial Justice Project and the San Francisco Human Services Agency, the city launched San Francisco Museums for All. During the summer of 2019, San Francisco residents who receive Cal Fresh (food stamps) and Medi-Cal received up to four free tickets to each museum when they present their benefits card. More than 200,000 people – nearly one in four San Franciscans- receive one of these means-tested benefits.  According to a survey of participating museums, 25,000 San Francisco residents used the program to visit local museums during the first summer. We also heard from museum leaders that the program helped them diversify their visitors. San Francisco Museums for All grows out of the national Museums for All initiative.

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Developed a pilot program to relieve low-income parents of child support debt owed to government

The context: Every year, hundreds of thousands of California families do not receive their full child support payments. That's because low-income families that receive public benefits only receive the first $50 of their monthly child support payment. The rest is redirected to government to pay back the cost of public assistance, like Medi-Cal and CalWORKs. Last fiscal year, California redirected $368 million in child support payments to the state, federal, and local governments to pay back the cost of public assistance.  Furthermore, parents who are late to pay back public assistance are charged ten percent interest, have their driver’s license suspended, and their credit score is damaged, creating formidable barriers to employment and to obtaining housing. These punitive policies deprive low-income children of valuable resources, disproportionately harm children and families of color, and create conflict in families. 

The reform: We collaborated with the San Francisco Department of Child Support Program to leverage a statewide debt forgiveness program using philanthropic dollars to pay down the debt parents owed to the government. Doing so ensured that all of the funds collected by child support can go directly to the custodial parent, usually the mother, and child. Funding was secured for the pilot from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund and Tipping Point Communities. As a result of the pilot, parents’ payments increased 15-30%, their relationships with their child and co-parent improved, and their financial, housing, and employment opportunities improved.  The pilot was evaluated by the Urban Institute. 

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Eliminated San Francisco Public Utility Commission fees for people who have had their water shut off.

The context: Approximately three people a day have their water shutoff in San Francisco, often because they cannot pay their bills. Previously people would need to pay $110 in fees to have their water turned back on- a $55 fee for the water shutoff, and a $55 fee for their water to be turned back on. These fees disproportionately impact low-income people and communities of color.

The reform: The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to eliminate these fees. They have also worked to expand enrollment in the low-income discount program, and eliminated a variety of other high pain, low gain fees, such as return check fees. 

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San Francisco ended the use of money bail

The context: The Financial Justice Project released a report entitled “Do The Math: Money Bail Doesn’t Add Up for San Francisco” in June 2017. In the report, we described how nonrefundable bail fees strip $10-15 million per year from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color and offered recommendations for reform. These included Pretrial Diversion, funding for weekend rebooking through the District Attorney’s Office, and support for the Public Defender’s Bail Unit. 

The reform: We worked with Supervisor Hillary Ronen to hold a hearing on the impact of money bail on women in San Francisco. Dozens of women came and testified about their experience with money bail. The report was cited by local and statewide media outlets, used by community advocates in litigation and calls for reform, and was cited by the California Chief Justice in calls for reform.  In January of 2020, the San Francisco District Attorney ended the use of money bail in San Francisco, citing research from the Financial Justice Project as part of the rationale for reform.

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Created an income verification database to make it easier and simpler for departments and the courts to discount fines and fees for people with lower incomes.

The context:We heard from many departments or court staff that were interested in offering discounted fees or fines for lower income people but had concerns about the administrative burden of verifying people’s incomes. We also had concerns about asking people to bring extensive documentation for every program they applied to, since onerous application requirements often discourage participation. 

The reform: To address these concerns, we work with departments to accept benefits cards as proof of eligibility. If a card is not available, departments can be trained to utilize a cloud-based lookup tool created by our Human Services Agency. HSA currently verifies the income of about 225,000 San Franciscans (25% of city residents) to determine eligibility for means-tested benefits such as Medi-Cal, CalFresh, and CalWORKs. To streamline the application process for both departments and for people, If the individual applying for a low-income waiver or discount requests their income be verified automatically, the department can now look up whether an individual has already had their income verified by HSA. Through this new process, the individual does not need to submit additional proof of income to qualify for the fee reduction or discount, and the department can streamline their application process. The database does not indicate what HSA benefits the person is receiving, but will only confirm the person’s eligibility. People need to sign a consent form to have their income looked up in the database, and there are stringent reporting and consent confirmation systems in place.

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  • Presentation on the income verification tool

Advanced Statewide Reforms

In partnership with community organizations across the state, the Financial Justice Project has worked to advance reforms at the state level that build on San Francisco reforms, and that would benefit city and county residents. 

    Eliminating fees charged to people exiting the criminal justice system statewide.

    • Eliminating fees charged to people exiting the criminal justice system statewide. The San Francisco Financial Justice Project sits on the steering committee of Debt Free Justice California, a coalition of more than 70 organizations pushing forward reforms to California’s criminal legal system. The coalition is currently pushing forward The Families Over Fees Act,  SB 144, which would eliminate fees charged to people exiting the criminal justice system. While San Francisco eliminated all locally authorized criminal justice fees in 2018, dozens of fees authorized by the state still remain, and create barriers for low-income residents reentering in San Francisco. The San Francisco Financial Justice Project is a sponsor of the legislation, which is authored by California State Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). The Financial Justice Project also sits on the steering committee for Senate Bill 555, which would reduce the price of phone calls from county jails across the state.

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    Reforming California’s punitive child support policies that take resources away from low-income children.

    • Current California law requires that low-income families who receive public benefits only receive the first $50 their monthly child support payment; the rest is redirected to pay back the cost of public benefits, like Medi-Cal and CalWORKs. Last year, California redirected $368 million in child support payments away from children to repay the cost of public assistance. These statewide policies create a multitude of harms. In a state with one of the highest child poverty rates, these policies take valuable resources from low-income children and disproportionately harm children of color, as more than two-thirds of the children impacted by these policies are children of color. They create conflict in families as the custodial parent doesn’t know how much the noncustodial parent is actually paying. And for non-custodial parents, they cause parents to quickly accrue debt to pay back the cost of welfare. Low-income parents owe $7 billion in debt to pay back the cost of welfare in California. Earlier this year, a coalition released a report called “The Payback Problem,” which outlines the negative impact this system has on low-income parents and families. The Financial Justice Project is working with community groups across the state to advance statewide bills to end these punitive practices.

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    Reducing the cost of jail phone calls and commissary for incarcerated people and their support networks.

    Across California, it’s a common practice in jails to mark up prices for phone calls and jail store items. Phone call and jail store/commissary costs are a significant economic drain on low-income people. Research shows the cost is most often borne by low-income women of color. In a national survey of incarcerated people and their families, eighty-two percent of survey participants reported that family members were primarily responsible for phone and visitation costs. Of the family members who were responsible for the costs, 87% were women. Increased communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones decreases recidivism, and improves reentry outcomes after release. Phone calls are people’s lifelines to their support networks. Staying in touch with family and support networks helps people get through their time in jail; maintain family ties that they will need when they get out; find work; and plan for a place to live.

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