Civil Assessments: The Hidden Court Fee that Penalizes Poverty (2022)
A civil assessment is a type of poverty penalty charged to people who miss a deadline to pay or appear in court. One of the highest and most common fees in California, it is a $300 hidden fee charged to people in cases involving anything from a traffic ticket to a felony. For many people, this can exponentially increase the amount they owe. For example, the addition of a civil assessment and administrative fees can take a $35 base fine for running a stop sign and increase it by over 850 percent.
Policy decisions about this hidden fee have been made with very little data about how it affects Californians, or whether it serves a purpose. For example, many policymakers believe civil assessments are most often given for “failure to appear,” but courts issue more than 80 percent of these fees in traffic or infraction cases where no court appearance is required. An estimated 300,000 people get civil assessments each year, primarily as a punishment for not paying with money they do not have.
To understand the actual impact of this hidden fee, the Debt Free Justice California Coalition conducted surveys with more than 200 people with recent traffic citations. This new data is released for the first time in this report.
The survey results speak powerfully to the problems and limitations of civil assessments. The survey shows that civil assessments are not acting as a deterrent: three out of four people did not even know the fees existed. The data shows that paying off civil assessments comes at the expense of everyday needs—rent, food, and utilities—for the vast majority of people who are charged this hidden fee. The survey also provides insight into why the civil assessment largely fails to induce people to resolve their citations, with evidence that the actual cause of most people’s inability to pay or come to court is lack of money, or other circumstances beyond their control.
Fee Abolition and the Promise of Debt-Free Justice for Young People and their Families in California: A Status Report on the Implementation of Senate Bill 190 (2019)
In October 2017, Governor Jerry Brown signed landmark bipartisan legislation making California the first state to abolish entire categories of monetary sanctions in the juvenile legal system and a subset of fees for young people in the criminal (adult) legal system. Starting January 1, 2018, Senate Bill 190 (SB 190) prohibits counties from charging fees to parents and guardians for their child’s detention, representation by counsel, electronic monitoring, probation supervision, and drug testing in the juvenile legal system. SB 190 also repealed county authority to charge fees for home detention, electronic monitoring, and drug testing fees to young people ages 18 to 20 in the adult system.
The promise of SB 190 was to bring debt-free justice to young people and their families. Senators Holly J. Mitchell and Ricardo Lara authored SB 190 to “eliminate a source of financial harm to some of the state’s most vulnerable families, support the reentry of youth back into their homes and communities, and reduce the likelihood that youth will recidivate.” Although we do not have outcome data for all of these goals, understanding the impact of SB 190 is critical for advocates and policymakers considering similar reforms in California and elsewhere.
This report presents key findings from county responses to Public Records Act requests and from interviews and follow up with state and local stakeholders regarding the implementation of SB 190 and the status of juvenile and young adult fee reform in California. It also includes recommendations to ensure full compliance with SB 190 and to realize the full benefit of fee abolition.
Homeless Exclusion Districts: How California Business Improvement Districts Use Policy Advocacy and Policing Practices to Exclude Homeless People from Public Space (2018)
Business improvement districts (“BIDs”) are private groups funded by local property assessments that play an increasingly large role in managing public space in California cities. First authorized by state law in the 1960s to help revitalize struggling urban areas, BIDs have grown considerably in number and influence, especially since 1994 when the State Legislature reduced public oversight of BIDs and expanded their assessment and spending authority.
Today, approximately 200 California BIDs collect hundreds of millions of dollars annually in compulsory property assessment revenue, which they spend on a wide range of activities. Researchers and policymakers have paid little attention to the rise of BIDs and their growing influence on municipal and state affairs. BIDs typically are located in downtown areas where businesses are concentrated. These same areas in California often have a high concentration of homeless people, including many people who are unsheltered.
In this report, we share research findings about the relationship between California BIDs and the criminalization of homelessness. Our key finding is that BIDs exclude homeless people from public spaces in their districts through policy advocacy and policing practices. BID involvement in social services is experienced by homeless people as an additional form of surveillance and harassment.
Our findings raise several legal concerns. When BIDs spend property assessment revenue on local and statewide policy advocacy, they may violate California law. BID spending on policy advocacy with revenue from assessments of publicly owned properties raises special statutory and constitutional concerns. Further, BID policing practices may violate the legal rights of people experiencing homelessness and expose BIDs to criminal liability.
The findings and legal concerns inform several key recommendations, spelled out in more detail in the report. First, the State Legislature should amend state laws that grant BIDs broad authority to collect and spend property assessment revenue and to operate largely independent of government oversight. Second, city governments should provide more careful scrutiny and regulation of BID activities within their jurisdictions. Finally, BIDs should assume greater accountability to all district residents and visitors.
Making Families Pay: The Harmful, Unlawful, and Costly Practice of Charging Juvenile Administrative Fees in California (2017)
While regressive and discriminatory criminal justice fees have been described and critiqued in the criminal justice system for adults, this is the first in-depth study of the practice of charging families for their children’s involvement in the juvenile justice system in a state (California).
Our research reveals that juvenile administrative fees undermine the rehabilitative purpose of the juvenile system. They cause financial hardship to families, weaken family ties, and undermine family reunification. Because Black and Latino youth are overrepresented and overpunished relative to White youth in the juvenile system, families of color bear a disproportionate burden of the fees.
Some counties charge juvenile administrative fees to families in violation of state and federal law. Most counties net little revenue from the fees. Because of the high costs and low returns associated with trying to collect fees from low-income families, most of the fee revenue pays for collection activity, not for the care and supervision of youth.
Fee debt can cause families to spend less on positive social goods, such as education and healthcare, which imposes long term costs on families, communities, and society by prolonging and exacerbating poverty.
In light of our findings that fees are harmful, unlawful, and costly, we make the following recommendations to California policymakers:
- To end their harmful impact on youth and families, the state should repeal laws that permit the assessment and collection of juvenile administrative fees.
- To redress unlawful practices, counties should reimburse families for all payments they made on improperly charged juvenile administrative fees.
- To understand the consequences of costly practices like juvenile administrative fees, the state and counties should collect and maintain better data in the juvenile system.
California's New Vagrancy Laws: The Growing Enactment and Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws in the Golden State (2016 Update)
This report updates our 2015 study on the enactment and enforcement of anti-homeless laws in California with new ordinance data from cities and updated arrest data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. We find that California cities are enacting and enforcing anti-homeless laws in record numbers. In contrast with historical post-recession trends, arrests of people who are homeless continue to rise in spite of an improving economy. Further, cities appear to be arresting people increasingly based on their homeless status as opposed to any concrete unlawful behavior.
High Pain, No Gain: How Juvenile Administrative Fees Harm Low-Income Families in Alameda County, California (2016)
National attention is focused on racial and economic discrimination in the criminal justice system. Racially disproportionate interaction with the system leaves people of color with significantly more court-related debt. While criminal court debt has been described and condemned in the adult system, this issue has received virtually no attention in the juvenile system, where fees undermine rehabilitative goals.
This report presents research findings about the practice of assessing and collecting fees on families with youth in the juvenile system in Alameda County, California. The County charges these fees to thousands of families who are already struggling to maintain economic and social stability, and the financial burden appears to fall most heavily on families of color. Although the fees are supposed to help the county recoup expenses, its own data suggest that the County barely recovers the most direct costs of collection.
The report calls for an immediate moratorium and repeal on the assessment and collection of these regressive and racially discriminatory fees (NB: On March 29, 2016, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors imposed a fees moratorium and asked the relevant county departments to prepare for a full repeal by June 28, 2016).
California’s New Vagrancy Laws: The Growing Enactment and Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws in the Golden State (2015)
Vagrancy laws conjure up a distant past when authorities punished people without a home or permanent residence. Whether the objects of pity or scorn, vagrants could be cited or jailed under laws selectively enforced against anyone deemed undesirable. Although such laws have generally been struck down by courts as unconstitutionally vague, today’s “vagrants” are homeless people, who face growing harassment and punishment for their presence in public.
More than one in five homeless people in the country lives in California, and two-thirds are unsheltered. The state legislature has done little to respond to this widespread problem, forcing municipal governments to address homelessness with local laws and resources. Cities have responded by enacting and enforcing new vagrancy laws — a wide range of municipal codes that target or disproportionately impact homeless people.
Through extensive archival research and case studies of several cities, the report presents detailed evidence of the growing enactment and enforcement of municipal anti-homeless laws in recent decades as cities engage in a race to the bottom to push out homeless people. It concludes with a call for a state-level solution to end the expensive and inhumane treatment of some of California’s most vulnerable residents.
U-Visas for Immigrant Victims of Hate Crimes: A Practice Guide for Advocates (2014)
Immigrants — and LGBT immigrants in particular — are especially vulnerable to hate crimes. If immigrant victims of hate crimes cooperate with authorities in the prosecution of their perpetrators, they may be eligible for U Visas. But many immigrant victims, advocates and certifying agencies are not aware that hate crimes can be qualifying crimes for U Visa purposes.
While there are general U Visa practice manuals, this short guide is designed to assist advocates representing immigrant victims of hate crimes, including:
- information about the U Visa, including qualifying (enumerated and non-enumerated) crimes;
- a description of hate crimes and how they can constitute qualifying crimes for U Visa purposes;
- best practices for representing immigrant victims of hate crimes, including how to identify non-enumerated hate crimes, obtain certification of such crimes, and draft a supporting declaration; and
- sample U Visa forms and other advocacy resources.
Model Fair Debt Buying Practices Act (2014)
The Model Fair Debt Buying Practices Act would regulate the activities of a person or entity that has purchased charged-off debt. It would establish clear procedures, minimum documentation requirements, and affirmative obligations before a debt buyer can: (1) contact a debtor, (2) initiate a lawsuit, and (3) obtain and collect on a judgment. The Act will help to curb some of the worst abuses in the debt buying industry, ensure that consumers are not forced to pay debts they do not owe, and reduce frivolous lawsuits in state courts.
The report was prepared by clinic students for ALICE/State Information Exchange and submitted during the notice and comment period on proposed debt buyer regulation to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in February 2014.
Financial Costs for Youth and their Families in the Alameda County Juvenile Justice System: A Guide for Advocates (2014)
This manual was prepared by law school clinic students for lay advocates assisting youth and their families in Alameda County’s juvenile justice system. In addition to court-ordered restitution (to repay victims for economic loss) and restitution fines (which go to the California State Restitution Fund), youth and their families are assessed fees for things like juvenile hall, probation supervision, drug testing, GPS monitoring and public defenders. The manual describes these costs and how to mitigate their impact on low-income youth and families already struggling with the burdens of court involvement and poverty.
Recommendations to Promote Horizontal Integration in California (2014)
This report sets forth a set of concrete recommendations asking the State Legislature to leverage the state’s health insurance marketplace, Covered California, to link health insurance applicants with other benefits for which they may be eligible. Given the Affordable Care Act’s emphasis on “horizontal integration” and streamlined applications, it is fitting for California to push ahead on reforms that will make it easier for families to take advantage of necessary supports.
The report recommends increased data sharing between several programs, modernization of program rules, as well as additional research and study.
The Obamacare Opportunity: Implementing the Affordable Care Act to Improve Health, Reduce Hardship, and Grow the Economy for All Californians (2013)
States are implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), which will expand health coverage to tens of millions of Americans. At the same time, many states, including California, have low participation rates among eligible individuals and families in key safety net and work support programs. This policy report, written on behalf of the Next Generation, describes how California can take advantage of ACA implementation to increase access both to health coverage and to vital public benefit programs.
Does Sit-Lie Work?: Will Berkeley’s “Measure S” Increase Economic Activity and Improve Services to Homeless People? (2012)
In November 2012, Berkeley voters will decide whether to enact Measure S, an ordinance that would ban sitting on public sidewalks during business hours in the City’s commercial districts.
Proponents of the “Civil Sidewalks Ordinance” – called “Sit-Lie” in the municipalities which have enacted such laws in recent years – argue that it will: (1) increase local economic activity (“saves jobs”), and (2) improve services to homeless people (“helps people”).
To test whether Sit-Lie laws deliver on these promises, we reviewed data on economic activity and homeless services in other Sit-Lie jurisdictions nationally, statewide and locally; surveyed community organizations, municipal human services and economic development agencies, business groups and police departments in more than a dozen Sit-Lie jurisdictions, including seven in California; and consulted local stakeholders about implementation challenges and opportunities.
Although there are limits to the data gathered – and more research needs to be done to answer these questions with more precision – we report multiple findings with no meaningful evidence to support the arguments that Sit-Lie laws increase economic activity or improve services to homeless people.
Prior clinic projects include:
Debt Buyer Abuse
The Clinic collaborated with the East Bay Community Law Center on a project to end the abuses by a third party debt buying industry, which preyed upon low income people in the wake of the Great Recession. Clinic students helped draft and advocate for a California law that addresses the problem, drafted a model bill for other states, and submitted federal rulemaking comments on the issue.
HEALTH and PUBLIC BENEFITS
Affordable Care Act
The Clinic worked with the Next Generation, a San Francisco-based think tank, to leverage implementation of the Affordable Care Act to increase take up rates of low-income Californians in key safety net and work support programs. Clinic students researched and wrote both a full report and a targeted policy brief on the topic, resulting in positive action by the Legislative Analysts Office and the state legislature.
HOUSING and HOMELESSNESS
Since 2012, the Clinic has been involved in various efforts to end the criminalization of homeless people in California. Clinic students researched and wrote an innovative policy brief refuting two empirical claims made by proponents of a Berkeley ballot measure that would have criminalized sitting and lying on sidewalks. In following semesters, students published a path breaking report on the statewide enactment and enforcement of anti-homeless laws, which is being used to advocate for a statewide right to rest bill.
Section 8 Discrimination
Clinic students researched and created internal work product on landlord discrimination against Section 8 voucher holders in California, which limits housing choice, exacerbates residential segregation and heightens disparate social and economic outcomes for low-income people of color.
U-Visas for Victims of Hate Crimes
Clinic students prepared a manual for service providers on behalf of the National Immigrant Law Center to assist LGBT immigrant victims of hate crimes apply for U-Visas. The manual helped identify what kinds of crimes qualify as hate crimes for U-Visa purposes and best practices and sample forms for advocates who are filing U-Visa applications on behalf of clients. The manual has been distributed to more than 600 immigrant service providers nationally.
The Clinic worked with the Northern California Immigrant Justice Collaborative and a UC Law School Working Group interested in increasing access to legal services for immigrants in California. The students drafted internal work product specifically around immigrant detention in California.
Juvenile Court Debt
Since fall 2013, the Clinic has been collaborating with a working group in Alameda County to end the imposition of administrative fees on youth and their families in the juvenile justice system. Clinic students prepared a manual for advocates assisting youth and their families navigating Alameda County’s juvenile justice system, including information about court-ordered restitution (to repay victims for economic loss), restitution fines (which go to the California State Restitution Fund) and juvenile fees (for things like juvenile hall, probation supervision, drug testing, GPS monitoring and public defenders). Students also produced a brochure on the same issue for youth and their families.
More recently, students looked into fee practices in all 58 California counties and recommended that the Alameda County Board of Supervisors place a moratorium on the assessment and collection of fees against youth and their families.
The Clinic has examined local and state mechanisms to promote police accountability and to consider a more meaningful role for civilian police review boards in particular. Police review boards date to the 1960s in the wake of the Kerner Commission finding that low-income communities of color lacked “effective channels for redress of complaints against police conduct.” In 2006, the California Supreme Court severely restricted public access to information about police misconduct and personnel files (Copley Press, Inc. v. Superior Court, 39 Cal. 4th 1272). By consulting stakeholders and delving into current practices, students have investigated a range of legal and policy options to help reduce police-initiated harm to individuals, families and neighborhoods.