State Senate Passed SB 144: Elimination of Criminal Administrative Court Fees

Introduction

The way our criminal justice system operates is changing. Community members, policy advocates and a growing number of judges recognize that criminal fines and fees are unjust and harm low-income people and communities of color.

When it comes to criminal justice reform, California likes to do things differently. The past few years have seen changes to the types of offenses that result in jail time, a reduction in penalties for non-violent crimes, and the elimination of cash bail. The latest proposed change involves the elimination of several administrative fees that, while not part of a sentence for a crime committed, are just as punishing to people caught up in the criminal justice system.

Defendants Pay for Court

Under our current system, if you are charged with a crime, you will face not only the prospect of time behind bars, and paying fines that are required by the law you allegedly broke, but you will also have to pay the fees associated with processing your case through the court system. The court collects these fees to pay for its operations, and to maintain a statewide restitution fund for victims of crime.

For example, if you have been arrested, released on your own recognizance, and then later convicted of the crime, you will be charged a $25 administrative screening fee. If you were represented by a public defender, there’s another $50 fee for registration. Should you be able to enroll in a pre-trial diversion program and avoid a sentence for a drug-related charge, you could still be facing an administrative fee of up to $500 to cover the cost of laboratory analysis. Need to set up a payment plan to pay the fines associated with your crime? That is another $30 charge.

While most of these fees are small in and of themselves, they can easily add up to a bill from the court in excess of $1,000. Worse yet, if you are like many others and cannot afford these fees, you will find yourself in California’s version of a debtor’s prison, because failing to pay these fees can mean that you will spend time in jail if you willfully fail to pay.

Impact of SB144

Recently, the State Senate passed SB 144, which seeks to eliminate these fees. The bill is currently being considered by the State Assembly. If the bill passes the Assembly, and the governor signs the bill into law, the court will no longer be able to charge these fees to criminal defendants.

Critics of the bill worry that the loss of this source of funding might severely tighten the belt on a court system that is already dealing with a lack of adequate resources. The belief is that the elimination of fees will result in lengthy delays in cases because the courts will not be able to hire enough people to process cases in a timely manner, which could lead to challenges from defendants based on the constitutional right to a speedy trial.

However, the bill’s supporters are pleased to see that the state is seriously considering ways to shift the burden away from the poorest defendants who cannot afford to pay these fines. These defendants often wind up unfairly punished with carrying the financial burden of the court system for the state.

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