Debt Free Justice is Alive and Kicking in California

By Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Vice President of Programs and Strategy

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Earlier this month, Governor Newsom signed the Families Over Fees Act eliminating 23 unjust, racist administrative fees within our legal system, and expunging $16 billion of fee debt held by mostly Black and brown Californians. An extraordinary win, the new legislation makes California the first state in the nation to enact sweeping reforms of this kind.

We at the Insight Center are proud to have played a critical role as co-sponsors of the bill and Steering Committee members of Debt Free Justice California, the coalition that led this advocacy and organizing effort in partnership with State Senator Holly Mitchell.

As an economic and racial justice organization that was one of the pioneers in bringing racial and gender wealth inequality to the forefront of the national discourse, it was imperative to us at the Insight Center to make the connection between mass incarceration and racial and gender wealth inequality. Through our work, we see how fines and fees within the criminal legal system extract wealth from Black and brown communities, and we have researched and written about how they serve as a driver of racial and gender wealth inequality.

When the opportunity arose to work on this issue in California a year and half ago, we jumped in with no hesitation. We saw this as an incredible opportunity to movement-build and connect lived experiences to the work in addressing racial and gender wealth inequality — a much needed strategy to build the political and public will to address racial and gender inequity effectively.

Without question, what has made this work so successful and special is the community we created in our coalition. A band of researchers, advocates, legal aid professionals, grassroots organizers, government officials and impacted people, we each brought our unique and important perspectives to the table, and honored each other. We unapologetically centered race in our messaging and advocacy, and held fast to our principles of addressing problems at the root and centering the wisdom and experiences of impacted people. Our one-pager clarifying the ineffectiveness of Ability-to-Pay measures is a prime example of that approach. It is an absolute pleasure to work with such dedicated, funny, passionate, smart people, full of integrity and spirit.

We are honored to have been a part of this coalition, and look forward to the work ahead in implementing this legislation, telling our story with our lessons learned so it can be replicated nationally, and coming up with new advocacy efforts in California on this issue. These 23 fees were just the first layer of the onion. Much more work lies ahead to ensure that California remains on the forefront of progressive, transformational change in our criminal legal system.

We invite you to read the coalition’s letter to Governor Newsom asking for his signature. It is an excellent primer to understand the issue more clearly.

To my fellow Debt Free Justice California compadres, thank you so much for your tireless work. I look forward to continuing this fight with you all!

The Insight Center for Community Economic Development’s mission is to help people and communities become, and remain, economically secure.

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