Ramsey County has eliminated nearly a dozen fees levied against people in jail and on probation that officials said disproportionately affected low-income families and communities of color.
The County Board on Tuesday approved getting rid of 11 fees, eliminating about $675,000 that the county charges people in jail each year.
Those struck from the books include a $300 probation supervision fee; a $16 daily fee for home electronic monitoring for working people; a $3 fee for diabetic supplies in jail; and a fee of 25 cents per pill for over-the-counter medication while in custody.
Ramsey County officials have been studying ways to reduce fees in the criminal justice system for the past year. But John Klavins, the county’s community corrections director, said the board’s decision comes when many are in need of “hope and relief.”
“We are hopeful that our work eliminating fees will serve as a catalyst to other departments and agencies in the justice system and provide hope that they will follow our lead in reducing disparities that often accompany fees and fines,” Klavins told commissioners.
Experts say unpaid fees can make it more difficult for probation officers to develop a rapport with clients and help them find jobs, succeed with treatment and rebuild their lives. Fines and fees can create a cycle of debt, new charges and other penalties, including driver’s license suspensions for those unable to pay.
“It doesn’t help develop that positive working relationship with those we serve,” Klavins said.
Ramsey County eliminated $300,000 in fees last year, bringing the total amount of annual corrections fees slashed to nearly $1 million, Klavins said.
Several on the board praised the efforts. Commissioner Nicole Joy Frethem said the move to reduce some of the financial pressures on those entangled in the criminal justice system will help struggling families and children.
“A majority of the people in our correctional facilities are parents of children under age 18,” Frethem said. “… We know there are significant collateral consequences to those children whose parents are involved in the justice system. It’s critical to protect our next generation.”
In 2019, Ramsey County was one of three jurisdictions selected nationwide by Public Financial Management’s (PFM) Center for Justice and Safety Finance to look at ways to reduce government reliance on criminal fines and fees as sources of revenue. The county was chosen for its early work in eliminating some fees, including a $25 jail booking fee. Counties around Dallas and Nashville also were selected.
Experts from PFM determined that in 2018, people in Ramsey County paid $12.8 million in criminal fines and fees. About half that went to the state and a quarter to cities in the county.
Ramsey County collected about $2.9 million levied as probation supervision fees, jail facility fees, law library fees and fees charged by outside vendors who run the jail canteen and phone systems.
In the meantime, county staffers continue to study ways to eliminate or reduce other fees, including those charged for jailhouse phone calls.
The reliance of cities and counties on fines and fees came into sharp focus after the August 2014 shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo., resulting in days of unrest.
A 2015 Justice Department report on Ferguson concluded that its law enforcement practices were “shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.”
Many cities and counties in the United States, including Hennepin County, have started reviewing their fees and fines after a Justice Department report found that the city of Ferguson had exorbitantly charged people in trouble with the law.