Los Angeles County Can Do Better by Its African American and Latinx Populations

By Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Vice President of Programs and Strategy

Photo: Larissa Puro CC BY 2.0

A lot happened on election day this week, including the San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors taking a big step towards shared economic prosperity by unanimously passing vital legislation to waive all unpaid debt and eliminate county-level administrative fees that are currently charged to people exiting the criminal justice system. Los Angeles County can and should follow suit to help families who have struggled under the burden of a biased criminal justice system.

Introduced by Supervisor and Mayoral candidate London Breed in February, the San Francisco ordinance ends 10 common criminal justice administrative fees that get attached to items like court ordered alcohol testing, emergency medical response, and electronic monitoring.

The unjust nature of fines and fees has gained national attention in recent years since the release of the Ferguson Report. The reality is that the purpose of these types of fees is to raise revenue. Charged to people who have already paid their debt to society, they serve no formal punitive function and cause undue harm to low-income communities and communities of color by pushing them into debt.

Essentially, Los Angeles County, and others across the state, are balancing budgets through fines and fees on the backs of people — primarily people of color — who simply cannot afford to pay them. As a result, California has an outstanding balance of $10 billion in unpaid court-ordered fines and fees, most of which is uncollectable. Los Angeles alone has an outstanding balance of over $3 billion in delinquent court debt.

For these reasons, the newly passed legislation in San Francisco is supported by many of the city’s key departments and offices, including the Public Defender, District Attorney, Probation, Sheriff, Treasurer and Mayor’s Budget offices.

Much like in San Francisco, African Americans and Latinx people are over-represented in Los Angeles County’s jail population. Combined, they make up 57% of Los Angeles County’s population, but according to the Vera Institute of Justice’s incarceration rate tool, they represent close to 80% of the population in county jail due to over-policing in communities of color and racial bias in the criminal justice system.

To compound the situation, African Americans and Latinx people also face substantial barriers to living financially secure lives.

According to new data from the 2018 update of the Insight Center’s California Family Economic Self-Sufficiency Standard, a measure that tracks the minimum income necessary to cover a family’s basic expenses like housing, food, transportation and childcare, a typical Los Angeles County family of four — 2 adults, 1 preschool age child and one school-aged child — needs to earn $80,642 annually to meet their basic needs. For a single parent with a preschooler and school aged child, $74,064.

The median income for African American households in Los Angeles County is $42,000, and for Latinx households, $45,300. Consequently, as the Standard shows, 45% of African American and 55% of Latinx households in Los Angeles struggle to keep a roof over their heads and pay their bills. In comparison, 23% of White households do not meet the minimum income necessary to afford their needs.

There is no question that legislation like that passed in San Francisco would have a major impact on Los Angeles County’s African American and Latinx populations, which are unjustly targeted by police and disproportionately bear the brunt of these fees.

Crippling administrative fees force families who are already financially stressed to make untenable choices between paying the fees or covering their basic expenses, like buying diapers or feeding their children. Families often go into further debt trying to pay fees for things like renting a court-ordered ankle bracelet, for instance, which costs over $245 a week ($35 per day) — an unimaginable expense for families already pressed financially.

Last December, Los Angeles County Supervisors voted to end late fees in county libraries, recognizing that these fees adversely affected low-income communities and prevented access. In May, they also approved an ordinance introduced by Supervisors Hahn and Solis to conduct a feasibility study to discontinue the collection of pre-2009 juvenile detention fee debt. These fees were charged to parents or guardians who have had their children pushed into the juvenile system. These are important steps forward, but more can and should be done for fees in the adult system.

San Francisco went further by eliminating administrative criminal justice fees in the adult system that are largely uncollectable and disproportionately affect low-income communities of color. Los Angeles County should be the next major county to step up and do the same.