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Do high court fees exploit poor families in LA County?


Los Angeles County’s complex system of court fees exploits poor families and should be eliminated, according to a report released this week by a coalition of criminal justice advocates.

“Los Angeles County has a responsibility to ensure that all its community members, whether rich or poor, receive equal justice and a fair chance to succeed. However, by using the criminal system to extract fees and fines from low-income communities of color, the county is doing the opposite,’’ according to a statement by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

The report—“Costs of Injustice: How Criminal System Fees Are Hurting Los Angeles Families’’—compares the system of fees to debtors’ prisons, workhouses and convict labor.

“Let us have a fair chance by eliminating fees, fines, penalties and assessments and allow us to enjoy all the great things Los Angeles County has to offer, not just its criminal system,’’ said Anthony Robles, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors eliminated juvenile detention fees last year and in April, asked its CEO to review fees charged in the adult criminal justice system.

The Costs of Injustice report and its findings are rooted in firsthand accounts, as well as a review of court records and other research reports.

Robles’ own story is included. He shared that he was living on food stamps and general relief and living rent-free with his grandmother, but the Probation Department calculated that he should be able to pay $2,000 in fees in $25 minimum monthly payments. He was lucky enough to have help from his family, but others are trapped by the debt, he said.

While fines are meant to be punitive, fees are typically designed to recoup costs or generate revenues to fund activities rather than to punish anyone. However, the costs can still force residents who are struggling financially to choose between household necessities and paying off court-ordered fees. The report estimates that two-thirds of probationers in Los Angeles County make less than $20,000 annually and nearly 40 percent make less than half that amount.

When due dates are missed, debt multiplies. The report found that fees disproportionately harm Black and Latino communities.

Those who are unable to pay fines and fees can enroll in community service programs, yet the majority of those who enroll reportedly don’t manage to complete programs by the deadline, according to advocates.

“I’ve seen young people come in with 900 hours of community service,’’ Kim Mitchell of the Young Justice Coalition told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Mitchell was one of dozens of community activists asking the board to take action. One criminal justice advocate spent the entire minute he was allotted to speak listing off a series of fees, including ankle monitors, lab fees, court facilities, citation processing and many more.

The report details a scenario in which a $390 fine for a first-time, no-injury DUI can end up costing more than $2,000 based on penalties and related fees.

In another scenario, a person who completes a jail sentence for property theft can then be required to pay court charges of nearly $8,000, including $155 in monthly fees for three years of probation supervision.