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Joseph has struggled with homelessness for the past decade, but things were looking up. He started a six-month job training program with the San Francisco Parks Department and works 20-30 hours a week at minimum wage. He was even starting to save, so he could afford a security deposit to get off the street.
That’s when Joseph’s wages were garnished by 25% by the Franchise Tax Board. Joseph met with Ken Theisen, a staff advocate with Bay Area Legal Aid, and learned that he owes more than $4,000 from six traffic tickets he received up to seven years ago. According to Theisen, this happens all the time. “People walk through our doors because they can’t afford to pay their tickets, and they don’t know where to turn.”
California traffic tickets are among the priciest in the nation, and many low-income residents struggle to pay them. A 2017 study by the Federal Reserve found that more than 40% of Americans could not cover a $400 emergency expense without selling something or borrowing money.
People like Joseph, whose incomes are up to 250 percent of the Federal Poverty Line (about $60,000 for a family of four), can now have their ticket burden reduced up to 80 percent or more, thanks to new Ability to Pay Guidelines adopted by the San Francisco Superior Court. These new guidelines will make a big difference for low-income people like Joseph, according to Theisen. “Before, we would enroll them in a payment plan, knowing it would take decades for them to pay off this debt- maybe even the rest of their life,” Theisen explained.
To apply, people can submit a new Ability To Pay form, and ask to have their traffic fines and fees reduced, based on their income. They can also request to pay off their fines on a payment plan, or by performing community service. The overall guidelines are described on the San Francisco Superior Court's new “Can’t Afford to Pay” web page. A new informational flyer is available to walk people through the process, and a list of community organizations is available for people who would like support filling out the form. Translated versions of the form and flyer are available as reference guides in Spanish and Chinese.
The Financial Justice Project meets monthly with officials at the San Francisco Superior Court and a group of legal service advocates, including Bay Area Legal Aid, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Legal Services for Children, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. We worked collaboratively with the courts to develop these revised guidelines.

"San Francisco’s new ability to pay guidelines are a model that other jurisdictions should follow. Developed collaboratively by community, county and court partners, they hold people accountable, without trapping them in an endless cycle of punishment and poverty,” said Lisa Foster, the co-director of the Fines & Fees Justice Center
Thank you to the San Francisco Superior Court and all of the legal services providers for their leadership and partnership on this important reform.
Yours in Financial Justice,
Anne and Christa
Copyright © 2018 Financial Justice Project, All rights reserved.