The city of San Francisco has hired the country’s “first-ever director of financial justice for a city,” reports The California Sunday Magazine in a short profile of the director, Anne Stuhldreher.
At her post, Stuhldreher will be tasked with determining “which government fines and fees unfairly punish the poor and middle class,” in San Francisco, according to Cal Sunday.
She formerly worked with the city on various financial programs for low-income residents and as a senior policy adviser to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Stuhldreher will lead the Financial Justice Project, a new venture in conjunction with the San Francisco’s office of the treasurer and tax collector. It aims to reform the local and state governments’ purportedly harsh financial penalties for a range of infractions, from traffic tickets to criminal dues. The revenue generated from these fees and fines is used, in part, to balance public budgets.
According to Cal Sunday, if a traffic ticket goes unpaid for 20 days in San Francisco, the resident is subject to a $300 late fee that can wind up with a collections agency, potentially damaging their credit.
Further, the San Francisco Treasurer reports that “four million Californians — 14% per cent of adults — have had their drivers’ licenses suspended because they can’t afford to pay traffic fines and fees.”
According to the project’s statistics, these debts and others become especially crippling to the financial lives of middle and lower-income residents.
“There is often an insidious unintended impact of this practice — to sentence people to poverty,” the project website reads. “These fines and fees can knock people down so hard they can’t get back up. Poor people and people of colour are usually hit the hardest. These pernicious practices can strip wealth and resources from vulnerable communities. Financial penalties can make government a driver of inequality, not an equaliser.”
Stuhldreher has spent significant time “studying the countless fees meted out by local, county, and state governments,” according to Cal Sunday.
“How can we right-size these things? At that stop sign in my neighbourhood, if someone driving a Tesla rolls through it and someone who works at the daycare center [rolls through] … should their ticket be the same?” Stuhldreher told Cal Sunday.
After learning that many of the city’s residents pay their parking tickets — for which the fines are some of the priciest in the country — through community service, Stuhldreher is considering what other departments may accept non-monetary forms of payment.
But Stuhldreher’s efforts go beyond traffic fines. She’s also concerned with the burden the criminal justice system places on families who can’t afford to pay for a night in juvenile hall or for the cost of their electronic bracelet, for example. According to Cal Sunday, she’s studying whether a local system similar to that of some European countries, where fees are based on a person’s daily income, would work in San Francisco.