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Berkeley helps to push back against excessive California court fees and fines

By John Hickey

Ferguson, MO protests, August, 201414
Protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 included anger over the way fees and fines funded local government. California did much the same thing, but SB 144, chiefly written by Berkeley Law’s Stephanie Campos-Bui, recently passed by the Senate, would change that. (Photo by Jamelle Bouie via Wikimedia Commons)
Ferguson, MO protests, August, 201414

Protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 included anger over the way fees and fines funded local government. California did much the same thing, but SB 144, chiefly written by Berkeley Law’s Stephanie Campos-Bui, recently passed by the Senate, would change that. (Photo by Jamelle Bouie via Wikimedia Commons)

Two thousand miles separate Berkeley from Ferguson, Missouri, but the two cities have a connection, nonetheless.

Ferguson jumped into the national spotlight in August 2014, when black 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by white 28-year-old police officer Darren Wilson. In the week of protests that followed, one of the key complaints of the citizens of Ferguson — most of them are black — was how the city funded itself and its police force.

Traffic and parking tickets, as well as court fines and fees, that often targeted the black population accounted for more than 10 percent of the city’s revenue. When a fine wasn’t paid, interest and penalties could be added. Arrests were made. Those who could least afford to pay often found themselves in a seemingly endless cycle of debt and jail.

In California, the Senate recently passed SB 144, the Families Over Fees Act. Some of the same issues about fines and fees that plagued Ferguson also are part of California’s legal landscape. The bill, introduced by Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, was chiefly written by the Debt Free Justice California coalition with technical support from the Policy Advocacy Clinic, both part of Berkeley Law’s East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC).

The bill would end assessment and collection of administrative fees imposed against people in the criminal justice system. By doing so, it would reduce the economic hardships caused by court-ordered debt.

Stephanie Campos-Bui, who serves as the clinical supervising attorney at the law school’s Policy Advocacy Clinic , also had helped shepherd a bill through the Senate and Assembly tackling the issue of fees regarding juveniles. SB 190 made California the first state to abolish all administrative fees in juvenile delinquency cases.

“The clinic has done a lot of work on fees being charged juveniles,” Campos-Bui says. “When that bill became law (Jan. 1, 2018), it was such a success that a lot of nonprofits in the Bay Area came to us for research support because they saw the same thing happening in the adult space.”

In figures published by the nonprofit California Reinvestment Coalition , California has 684 criminal justice financial penalties, of which 597 are fines and 58 are fees. Unlike fines, fees aren’t meant to be punitive. But for those who can’t afford them, they wind up being exactly that.

East Bay Community Law Clinic, 2018-19

The group from Berkeley Law’s East Bay Community Law Center that helped write SB 144, the Families Over Fees Act included (from left) Alia Ferguson, Briana Zweifler, Aminah Elster, Eric Henderson, Brandon Greene, Noe Gudino, Stephanie Campos-Bui and Theresa Zhen. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Campos-Bui)

Attorneys at the EBCLC, the largest clinic of Berkeley Law, Brandon Greene and Theresa Zhen, who helped Campos-Bui along with other members of Debt Free Justice California shape and guide SB 144 from the community law center into Mitchell’s hands, probation fees are an abomination.

“I see myself as an impacted person first and a lawyer second,” says Greene, a former Contra Costa County public defender. “I grew up in the inner city, and I’m one of the only men in my family not to be incarcerated. And working in Contra Costa, I would see clients facing these payments with no way to pay except to not eat or to not pay rent. Not paying the fees would be a violation of their probation.

“To me, it’s important to get rid of these fees.”

With the help of Greene and Campos-Bui, Debt Free Justice California was able to show legislators in Sacramento that in San Francisco alone, from 2012-18, more than 20,000 people accumulated $15 million in debt because of local fees — at least $12 million of which came from a $50 probation fee that often went uncollected. Just in San Francisco, eliminating fees and erasing debt would cost the government $1 million in revenue, the study showed, but at the same time, $32 million could come off the books for thousands of debtors.

After joining the law center, Greene devoted time to making some of the fees connected to parking tickets and minor traffic offenses less burdensome. That was after the Ferguson saga gave fees and fines national prominence. Greene, Zhen and their community partners lead the work that eliminated a series of criminal fines and fees in Alameda County.

Sen. Holly Mitchell

Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) sponsored SB 144, the Families Over Fees Act. (Photo by Neon Tommy via Wiki Commons)

“After the uprising in Ferguson, it became clear to everyone that this way of filling city coffers wasn’t just a Ferguson problem,” Greene says. “It was a national issue.”

San Francisco and Alameda counties tackled the problem on their own, passing resolutions that leveled the playing field. But community and national nonprofit groups — such as the Western Center on Law and Poverty and the Northern and Southern Californian branches of the American Civil Liberties Union— wanted to tackle the problem statewide.

That’s where Berkeley Law took a leadership role. Both through attorneys and students at EBCLC and through its Policy Advocacy Clinic. Campos-Bui’s job is to work full-time on these kinds of issues, and Berkeley Law considers such onerous fees and fines as an issue worth tackling.

“As a public university, we have resources and capacities that many nonprofits don’t,” Campos-Bui says. “They don’t have staffing, but we do. And by staffing, I mean students. There are a lot of big, thorny issues that have to be looked at, and some of them are heavy lifts. But here at the Policy Advocacy Clinic, we take them on. It’s important to have a space here for significant issues.”

A group of students — including Devan Shea, Carson Whitelemons, Andrea Lynn, Ryan Miller and Dyana Mardon — entered the fray and added extra eyes and hands necessary to move the discussion forward. In less than a year, Debt Free Justice California had a bill written that Mitchell was willing to sponsor. She introduced it on Jan. 18, and in just over four months, the Senate passed it 26-8 and sent it on to the Assembly.

The bill still has to make its way through the Assembly and, should it do so, it would have to be signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Campos-Bui is optimistic, but says, “I still wake up every morning not knowing what new obstacles there might be until I read my email.”

For Greene, he says he hopes the ultimate passage of SB 144 “will have the impact of being the first of many other bills to come across the country.”

“It has the potential to start a tidal wave of reform of criminal justice, racial justice and financial justice,” Greene says. “Right now, too much wealth is being siphoned off from black and other marginalized communities. As a nation, we don’t want to tax, so we do this, which is just a form of a regressive tax, one that impacts the poorest among us.”