Cutting the Poor a Break: San Francisco pioneers a program to reduce the fees and fines that keep people from succeeding.

AuthorNathanson, Rebecca

During the year she spent in the Orange County jail in Southern California, Amika Mota wrote letters to her oldest kids, aged fourteen and eleven. That wasn't an option for her six-year-old-she needed to hear her mother's voice.


So once a month, the former midwife called her children, who were then living in the Bay Area with Motas father.

She had fifteen minutes for these calls; the kids would set a timer to make sure they each got five. It was 2008 and, despite having been in and out of the criminal justice system, Mota had never before been away from her children for such a long time. But each fifteen-minute phone call cost at least $15, so once a month was all Mota and her family could afford.

After county jail, Mota served a seven-year prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter, for killing a man after running a red light while high on meth. When she got out, she owed $12,000 in restitution and had been charged about $4,000 in other costs. Until she paid, she could not return to the Bay Area to reunite with her children.

"One of the requirements for getting an out-of-county transfer was that a certain amount of your fines and fees had to have been paid off already," Mota explains in an interview in the Oakland office of the Young Women's Freedom Center, where she now serves as policy director. "At that point, I was panicking, thinking I wasn't going to be able to get to my kids."

Mota, however, was lucky. She managed to borrow the money and headed north to her children.

The Young Women's Freedom Center is a leadership and advocacy organization for women, trans, and gender non-conforming people. It works with a population disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system and the financial burden it puts on all who come in contact with it. A 2015 report found that 83 percent of family members responsible for care and visitation costs for an incarcerated person are women.

"Every single one of us is dealing with this stuff," Mota says. "We know what it looks like to be dealing with these systems that continue to trip us up when we're trying to get on our feet."

So a few years ago, when Motas group was approached by the Financial Justice Project of the San Francisco Treasurer's Office to join its campaign to eliminate fees on phone calls and end markups on commissary items in San Francisco County jails, it was a no-brainer. "All of us are individually impacted by this," she says. "We know the story. And then when we hear the movement is happening, it's like, 'Yes!'"

It is an issue that gains more urgency in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is impacting poor people and communities disproportionately, even as it requires a new level of civic sacrifice and engagement from citizens throughout the land. In this time of global crisis, saddling the poor with onerous debt is the last thing that will help anyone.

IN 2015, when the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released its report on Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of Michael Brown, Anne Stuhldreher was working at the California Endowment, an organization focused on improving health.

The report found that fines and fees comprised the city of Ferguson's...

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