In San Francisco, we strive to be a beacon of progressivism for the rest of the country and the world, whether it is leading the way on gay marriage, immigrants rights, or combating climate change. But doing so also requires revisiting the legacy of policies that have disproportionately impacted our low-income and minority populations and working to not only reverse those decisions, but make up for the harm they have caused. This includes making investments so that the next generation of San Franciscans have the opportunity to succeed.
The City government has made decisions in the past, whether intentional or not, that have unnecessarily made life harder for some of our residents. Burdensome fees have made it harder for people to exit the criminal justice system. Library fees, which have been shown to be an ineffective way of enforcing return policies, have shut out residents from largely minority neighborhoods from accessing important City resources. Costly jail calls and high commissary fees have forced families to choose between paying their bills and talking to their loved ones who are serving time, adding further costs to an already difficult situation.
We’re working to fix these policies while striving to avoid similar mistakes today. We can do better. We must do better. San Francisco is a City for everyone and our government needs to work for ALL of our residents.
Free Jail Calls and Ending Commissary Markups
In June, along with Sheriff Vicki Hennessy and The Financial Justice Project in the Office of the Treasurer, we announced that San Francisco is going to become the first county in the nation to make all calls from jail free and end commissary markups in jail stores by June 2020. Making jail calls free allows incarcerated individuals to stay in contact with their families, which in turn, helps to reduce recidivism rates.
A report published by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2011 determined that “incarcerated men and women who maintain contact with supportive family members are more likely to succeed after their release,” including better employment outcomes and reduced drug use, than those who do not. The report also showed that a majority of people who exit the criminal justice system end up residing with a relative or spouse after their release, and staying connected with family while incarcerated helps maintain these important relationships.
Charging for phone use in jails and adding markups to jail store goods places an economic burden on incarcerated people and their families. Every year in San Francisco, incarcerated people and their support networks spend $1.7 million on jail calls and commissary markups. 80% of these costs are paid by families, primarily low-income women of color.
Eliminating Criminal Justice Fees
Based on legislation I authored in July 2018 as the President of the Board of Supervisors, we worked with the San Francisco Superior Court to eliminate $32 million in debt owed by 21,000 people for administrative fees for their time in jail and involvement in the criminal justice system.
These fees pile debt onto people who cannot not afford to pay them, create barriers to people’s successful re-entry, and are a counterproductive source of government revenue. For example, only nine percent of probation fees — the largest fee eliminated by the legislation — were collected in 2018. The goal of these local criminal justice fees is to generate revenue to cover costs, not create an additional layer of punishment. By eliminating these fees, we are allowing people who have already served time for their crimes to have a fair chance as they reenter society.
Clearing Driver License Suspensions
In April 2019, I announced that the Mayor’s Budget Office, in coordination with The Financial Justice Project, has provided approximately $15,000 to the San Francisco Superior Court to lift approximately 88,000 existing holds on driver’s licenses that were suspended due to the license holder’s failure to appear in court to pay traffic citations.
By lifting these license holds, we have removed a very significant barrier to employment for thousands of local residents who are ready and able to work. Research shows a direct and significant relationship between driver’s license suspensions and loss of employment, prolonged unemployment, and a decrease in income. Possession of a driver’s license, in combination with access to a reliable vehicle, provides greater mobility and therefore increased access to employment opportunities.
The San Francisco Superior Court no longer places holds on licenses for failure to appear, and everyone who had their license suspended for that reason has the opportunity to go to the DMV and get their license reinstated.
Library Overdue Fee Forgiveness
In January, I announced that the San Francisco Public Library, in partnership with The Financial Justice Project, would propose eliminating fines for overdue returns to increase equitable access to public resources. Currently, nearly 250,000 patrons owe $1.6 million in fines and anyone with over $10 in outstanding fines is prohibited from borrowing materials from the library. However, fines generate only $330,000 in revenue each year, which is just 0.2% of the Library’s budget.
Research done by The Financial Justice Project found that fines are a barrier to equitable access of critical resources provided by libraries, and disproportionately affect low-income San Franciscans. For example, 11.2% of cardholders in the Bayview branch are blocked from access to libraries due to outstanding fines, compared to only 5% for the City as a whole.
Opportunities for All
When I was 14 years old I had my first paid internship at the Family School, which not only taught me about professionalism and responsibility, but also helped open doors for me professionally. Had this not been a paid position, I would never have had the chance to take it.
This is why I was so excited to launch Opportunities for All, an initiative focused on creating opportunities for youth in San Francisco to gain employment experience, build networks, and address inequities represented in income and wealth gaps by giving them access to paid internships. Many kids cannot afford to work an unpaid internship, which puts them at a disadvantage as they begin their careers. In order to level the playing field, it’s critical that the Opportunities for All internships be paid internships ($15/hr).
So far, 4,000 students have signed up for Opportunities for All. Of those youth, 19% are African American, 18% are Latinx, and students primarily come from underserved neighborhoods. We are excited to be able to say that nearly 200 employers are participating in the program, including various City departments.
This is an investment in the future of San Francisco. The opportunities that these young people have will open doors for them that otherwise may have remained closed. It’s a chance for youth to pursue a career that they’ve always imagined or experiment in a field that is new to them. Either way, they will benefit and San Francisco will be stronger as a result.
These projects will help to make San Francisco a more fair and equitable home for all of our residents. Together, these initiatives will forgive $36 million worth of burdensome fines and fees that perpetuate a cycle of poverty and interaction with the criminal justice system. But we know that fixing past injustices is not enough, which is why we’re moving forward with initiatives like Opportunities for All while investing in our historically underserved communities.
Every San Franciscan deserves the opportunity to succeed. It’s our responsibility to ensure they have that chance.