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California officials shouldn’t be ‘stunned’ by rising homelessness in Los Angeles (or anywhere else)

By Alexander “Sasha” Harnden, Policy Advocate at Western Center on Law & Poverty

As results from recent homelessness counts from cities and counties across California are released, showing large increases in unsheltered populations, public officials are reportedly “stunned,” “shocked,” and “alarmed” by the numbers.

No one in California who has followed the efforts to increase protections for tenants, ease rising rents and housing instability, and encourage proven solutions to homelessness should be shocked or stunned by our state’s increasing homelessness. It is predictable, expected, and the natural result of our legislature’s failure to enact reasonable reforms in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe.

We should not be shocked, but we should all be alarmed.

We’ve all seen recent stories about how local expenditures on homeless services haven’t put a dent in the crisis because those efforts are frustrated by new families falling into homelessness. We’ve read stories about rising rent burdens, inappropriate evictions of long-term tenants, and the large proportions of today’s homeless population who aren’t homeless because of mental illness or substance abuse but because of economic factors beyond their control. We’ve read about the outsized power wielded by interest groups representing landlords, the real estate industry, and housing speculators, and about our state’s inability to enact meaningful tenant protections.

And yet, despite the clear connection between these stories, California officials find themselves “shocked” and “stunned” by the inevitable increase in homelessness that flows from these conditions, and from the inability or unwillingness to address them.

Just last month, the California State Assembly failed to bring a measure up for a floor vote that would have required “just cause” for landlords to evict tenants. AB 1481, authored by Assembly members Tim Grayson and Rob Bonta, would have required that landlords state an allowable reason when forcing a tenant to leave their home. The bill would have permitted evictions for virtually any legitimate reason, such as a tenant’s bad conduct, failure to perform obligations, or the landlord’s desire to do something different with their property. Despite this, and against the backdrop of our housing crisis, the bill lacked the legislative support needed to even come up for a vote on the Assembly floor.

Senate Bill 529, by Senator Maria Elena Durazo, which would have protected tenants’ right to organize in response to conditions in their buildings, failed by one vote. AB 36, by Assembly member Richard Bloom, which would have made basic reforms to restrictions on local rent control policies, wasn’t even debated in its first policy committee. And Assembly member David Chiu’s AB 1482, which would put a ceiling on rent increases, was significantly amended so that it could pass the Assembly floor.

Opportunities still remain for California’s legislature to demonstrate a serious commitment to tackling our homelessness crisis this year. AB 1482, despite recent amendments, will put the brakes on the most outrageous rent increases; there are numerous examples of tenants receiving increases doubling or even tripling their monthly rent.

Western Center is co-sponsoring another bill, SB 329 by Senator Holly Mitchell, to increase access to existing units for low-income renters who receive housing assistance — a proven solution to homelessness. The bill would add housing assistance as a protected source of income under our state’s anti-discrimination laws, meaning landlords could no longer discriminate against a housing applicant just because they get help to pay their rent. Similar policies have been adopted in local jurisdictions and other states, and have been shown to drastically improve access to quality housing for assisted families.

We should all be alarmed by rising homelessness in our communities. All of us are served by supportive communities where all our neighbors have a stable place to call home, and all of us are affected by the insecurity and instability wrought by rising rents and a lack of tenant protections. These are the factors that lead directly to rising homelessness, strains on our social service systems, and public health and safety issues — for sheltered and unsheltered residents alike. As we work to increase the production of needed affordable units – particularly at the lowest income levels – we must also ensure families are protected from rising rents, arbitrary eviction and discrimination, or we run the risk of continuing the cycle of homelessness and half measures.

Until we take the steps required to solve the problems leading to increased homelessness, we should not be shocked or stunned to see new neighbors living on the streets. What should alarm us all is the failure to implement proven solutions for the state, in the midst of a housing crisis that affects every single one of us.

California stopped suspending licenses for failures to pay traffic fines. Why do some drivers who can’t pay still have suspended licenses?

By Rebecca Miller, Western Center Senior Litigator

In 2016, low-income motorists – represented by Western Center and other law firms — sued the California Department of Motor Vehicles for suspending the driver’s licenses of individuals who couldn’t afford to pay traffic tickets. As the suit progressed, the California Legislature passed AB 103, which abolished the practice of suspending licenses for failure to pay fines, and eventually we successfully persuaded the DMV to lift existing failure to pay suspensions.

Abolishing suspensions for failures to pay was a huge win for Californians, and resulted in more than 200,000 people getting their license back. The progress made with failure to pay suspensions opened the door to address another issue facing primarily low-income Californians – license suspensions for failing to appear in court. While suspensions for failures to pay were repealed, courts can and do still suspend if someone doesn’t show up for their court date.

We have heard story after story of people affected by failure to appear license suspensions that they can’t clear. One man was forced to turn down a job that required a license because the court insisted he pay his tickets in full (money he doesn’t have because he is unemployed). Another woman, a disabled mother of four, is forced to drive without a license so she can take her kids to school and doctor’s appointments while she chips away at her balance $25 at a time. Neither driver was able to lift their failure to appear suspension without paying their tickets in full.

To address the conundrum, the City of San Francisco announced last month that it would reinstate licenses for people who failed to appear in court after finding that the primary reason drivers don’t appear is because they cannot afford to pay their tickets. Yet outside of San Francisco, there are lingering problems with notifications for failures to appear in court that continue to punish people for living in poverty.

Some courts reinstate a driver’s license once a person appears, but other courts keep the suspension in place until the court debt is paid — essentially treating failing to appear in court the same way as failing to pay a fine. Although no county is officially suspending licenses based on failure to pay notifications sent to the DMV, Californians in many counties experience a cycle that goes something like this:

Miss a traffic court deadline for a number of potential reasons: I don’t have a defense, I don’t have the money to pay the ticket, or I’m afraid because my experience with the judicial system has created a fear of courts and judges — especially if I’m a person of color. It’s also possible that I couldn’t get off work, or don’t have sufficient transportation to get to an inconveniently located traffic court. The court then sends a failure to appear notification to the DMV. Depending on the underlying traffic offense, after one or two failure to appear notifications, my license is suspended, but I still don’t have enough money to pay the fines and don’t know how to get my license back.

A few counties allow people to go to walk-in court to “appear” by admitting guilt and agreeing not to contest the ticket. The court then sends a failure to appear release to the DMV, and the person can get their license back, even with an outstanding balance. Other courts find people who don’t appear guilty in absentia and never send a notification to the DMV in the first place.

But some courts will not release a failure to appear notification until a person pays their ticket in full, or completes all of their community service. In these courts, there is no walk-in court or forms to let you “appear.”  Even if a person files an ability to pay request saying they can’t afford the ticket and need the cost reduced or to be put on a payment plan, the court doesn’t count it as an appearance. Essentially, courts in this category use failure to appear notifications to coerce people to pay tickets they can’t afford, even though the statute and legislative history only allow courts to use failure to appear suspensions to compel a driver to come to court and either admit guilt or contest the ticket.

The move by San Francisco to reinstate licenses suspended because a driver didn’t appear in traffic court is good policy. It acknowledges that failure to appear notices are not related to driving safety, and that most failures occur because drivers can’t afford their tickets. It also recognizes that driver’s license suspensions are harmful — most Californians need a driver’s license for work and to care for their families.

However, San Francisco’s decision to take action doesn’t resolve the legal question trapping drivers in some counties: when is a court required to lift a failure to appear suspension? Despite some counties’ answers to that question, the law is clear. Courts cannot use failing to appear to suspend a driver’s license for an unpaid ticket or incomplete community service, and they cannot prevent drivers from clearing a failure to appear license suspension if there is no clear way for drivers to “appear,” or if the definition of an appearance is too narrow.

To ensure the elimination of failure to pay suspensions is a reality for low-income Californians, Western Center and our partners will continue to challenge these unlawful practices.

GUEST BLOG: Understanding the impact of criminal administrative fees, and how solutions like SB 144 can move California toward a more equitable future

By Stephanie Campos-Bui

I am a supervising attorney in the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, where we have been researching fines and fees in the justice system since 2013.

In 2017, we worked closely with Senator Mitchell and then-Senator Lara on Senate Bill 190, co-sponsored by Western Center, Youth Justice Coalition, and PolicyLink, among others, which repealed county authority to charge juvenile fees to families of young people in California. One year into implementation of SB 190, all 58 counties have stopped charging juvenile fees.

Given what we learned about juvenile fees, we are now supporting research efforts on fee assessment and collection practices in the criminal (adult) justice system. We have already observed similar findings to those in the juvenile space.

The majority of fees currently charged to people who come into contact with the justice system were authorized during the 1980s and 90s during the War on Drugs, and when the state faced a multi-billion-dollar deficit — the Legislature turned to fine and fee revenue to fill funding holes.

As a result, the existing fee scheme in California is wide-reaching and overly complex. At nearly every point in the criminal legal process, California state law authorizes counties to charge fees. From booking and arrest, representation by a public defender, to court-ordered programs and probation supervision, an individual can face a host of fees, including for collection. Counties also have discretion on the amount charged, so practices vary widely across California. In San Diego County, an adult on probation for five years can be charged almost $12,000, but just miles over in neighboring Imperial County, they would be charged $1,700.

To protect individuals against excessive fees, state law allows, but does not mandate, counties to consider an individual’s income and resources before assessing fees. In many instances, counties do not conduct meaningful ability-to-pay determinations or any determinations at all, leaving individuals with bills they cannot afford and will never pay.

We saw this in the recent Court of Appeals decision, People v. Duenas, in which Western Center was involved on behalf of the defendant, Duenas. In that case, LA County failed to assess whether a single mother, Velia Duenas, could pay the fines and fees imposed against her. In addition to finding the county in violation of due process under the United States and California Constitution, the court recognized that “…imposing unpayable fines on indigent defendants is not only unfair, it serves no rational purpose, fails to further the legislative intent, and may be counterproductive.”

Our ongoing research has shown that the snowball effect of fees can cause significant economic and social harm, while generating low revenue. Fees can quickly add up to thousands of dollars, and once imposed, can become civil judgments, subjecting individuals to tax intercepts and wage garnishments, which impacts credit scores and limits access to stable employment, housing, education, and public benefits. A survey conducted by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that the average debt for fines and fees was $13,607.

According to a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, people sometimes turn to underground communities or criminal activity to manage the financial strain of high outstanding fees. Studies have also found that criminal justice debt correlates with a greater likelihood of an individual returning to prison. Those negative outcomes not only harm public safety, but also makes reentry into society much harder.

Unsurprisingly, all of this disproportionately harms low-income people and people of color. Due to over-policing and targeted policing in communities of color, Black and Brown people are punished more frequently and harshly at a variety of discretion points, which leads to higher fee burdens.

Theoretically, fees are intended to help local jurisdictions recoup costs associated with the justice system. Yet counties often recover only a small proportion of what they assess. In Alameda County, the rate of collection on probation supervision fees during 2017 was 4%.  In San Francisco, the collections rate for probation fees in 2016 was 9%.

Such low return rates are not a result of lax collection efforts, but because most system-involved individuals are low-income and cannot afford to pay the fees. For example, in Humboldt County, eighty-four percent of people on probation had a monthly income of less than $1,000.

Additionally, counties spend significant resources trying to assess and collect fees. Records from LA County showed that in fiscal year 2017-18, the County spent $3.9 million to collect $3.4 million in probation fees, resulting in a loss of half a million dollars. Even in counties where collection costs don’t exceed revenue, the resources put toward collection efforts—both within county and to private agencies—do not result in significant returns. And fees are not just costly, they also crowd out spending on positive social goods like healthcare and education. The lack of investment in those areas imposes harm over time, prolongs and exacerbates poverty, and generates costs to families, communities, and society.

The good news is that we have already seen reform across the state. Los Angeles County eliminated its public defender registration fee in 2017 after recognizing the fee’s potential to dissuade people from using their constitutionally-guaranteed right to counsel. San Francisco County eliminated 12 criminal administrative fees and penalties in June 2018, discharging $32 million, and Alameda County ended the assessment and collection of five administrative fees in November 2018, discharging $43 million.

Statewide, SB 190 ended juvenile fee assessments as of January 1, 2018, and 36 of 58 counties opted to go beyond the requirements of the law by also ending collection on over $236 million in outstanding fees, which underscores the commitment counties have to doing right by the populations they serve.

This year, Senate Bill 144, co-sponsored by Western Center, ACLU California, East Bay Community Law Center, PolicyLink, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Youth Justice Coalition, and more, builds on these reform efforts by tackling the array of fees and costs charged to people in the criminal justice system. The bill addresses fees charged for booking and arrest, representation by counsel, diversion and alternative programming, probation, court-ordered programs and classes, drug and alcohol testing, collection fees, and civil assessments. The bill also seeks to end collection on unpaid fees and discharge and vacate outstanding debt.

The use of fines and fees has widened the reach and impact of the justice system to include more people, and has created long-lasting collateral consequences which ultimately serve the racially motivated underpinnings upon which our justice system was built—to control and marginalize black and brown communities. Fees and fines are not a reasonable answer for any of society’s problems — the criminal justice system should be funded by a more stable, predictable, and equitably-generated source of funding. SB 144 is a substantial step in that direction.

 

Valley residents make their voices heard in Sacramento

 

The weather didn’t stop thousands of Valley residents – from Bakersfield to Stockton – from traveling to Sacramento on March 6 to raise their voices at the State Capitol demanding change for a healthier San Joaquin Valley and all its residents.

Approximately 2,000 Valley residents, advocates, and local elected leaders gathered at the Capitol Mall for this year’s ‘Equity on the Mall’ to rally for a ‘Golden State for All.’

The annual event is conducted by the San Joaquin Valley Health Fund, a funding collaborative of 18 funders and 90 community organizations established by The Center at Sierra Health Foundation.

Residents represented nine counties in the San Joaquin Valley with the commun goal to bring much-needed attention to the health inequities faced by children and families living in the region.

…“A child can’t put their childhood on hold until an affordable housing unit is built or the market adjusts, and solutions that allow low‐income families to access existing housing are a critical component of ensuring children succeed,” said Alexander Harnden, Housing Policy Advocate with the Western Center on Law & Poverty.

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Chiu bill would prevent cities from towing vehicles for nonpayment of parking tickets, registration

Cities would no longer be allowed to tow vehicles with multiple unpaid parking tickets or overdue vehicle registration fees or that haven’t moved in more than three days under legislation introduced by Assemblymember David Chiu Monday.

Chiu, D-San Francisco, introduced Assembly Bill 516 with the intention of preventing cars from being towed in cases where it does not serve any public safety purpose and disproportionately impacts low-income people.

The bill would prohibit poverty-related tows wherein the owner has received five or more outstanding parking tickets, were unregistered for more than six months or if the vehicle had violated the 72-hour parking restriction.

…“Towing is an unnecessarily harmful way for local governments to enforce non-safety related laws,” said Mike Herald, director of policy advocacy of Western Center on Law and Poverty. “It is the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack an egg.”

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On Stephon Clark: The failure of public officials, the power of Black student protest, and the need for systemic reform

Like most people following the Stephon Clark case, I was, sadly, unsurprised by last week’s announcements that neither the Sacramento District Attorney’s office nor the State Attorney General would file criminal charges against the two officers who killed the unarmed 22-year old Black man in his grandmother’s backyard last March.

I watched with horror as District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert delivered her matter-of-fact character assassination of Clark, implying that he was to blame for his own death. I felt sick knowing that Schubert’s words would lead many to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that Clark led a life not worth caring about, or worse, that he somehow deserved to die.

The community’s grief and anger over the agencies’ announcements were compounded by the arrests and detention of over 80 people, including students and faith leaders, who protested the decision in the wealthy neighborhood of East Sacramento. By several first-hand accounts, protesters were trying to return to their cars when police herded the disbanding protesters onto the 51st street overpass with no exit. Journalists from the Sacramento Bee and Sacramento Business Journal were among those detained.

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn’s evasive and befuddled response to public questioning and criticism of his department’s handling of the protest only deepened the crisis. The D.A.’s decision not to file charges against the protesters is a relief, but in my view, the very least Sacramento leaders should do.

I am a resident of East Sacramento, and I am deeply outraged by Stephon Clark’s senseless death and the failure of leadership, lack of accountability, and re-traumatization of his family and the community that has followed in its wake. But amidst mine and the community’s despair, the movement for true, systemic criminal justice reform presses forward in Sacramento and in California.

Two days after the arrests of the 80 protesters, hundreds of Sacramento area college and high school students walked out of their classrooms and marched to the state Capitol in support of Assembly Bill 392, the California Act to Save Lives. Introduced by Assembly Member Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and co-authored by Assembly Member Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), the bill would change the current standard that allows police officers to use deadly force when they have a “reasonable belief” that they are at risk of harm, even if an alternative course is available. Like similar laws in Seattle and other jurisdictions that have reduced dangerous police interactions without evidence of increased harm to officers, AB 392 would only allow the use of deadly force if “necessary.”

What makes the student protesters so compelling is the personal nature of their cause. As they told the Sacramento Bee, they’re also at risk of being killed by the police unless they fight for changes to the system that led to Clark’s death and the many fatal police shootings before his. The students also smartly seek broad reform, like demanding area school districts end contracts that put police officers (“school resource officers”) on campus. Otherwise, benign behaviors of Black students and other students of color will continue to be criminalized, rather than being addressed through appropriate services and restorative practices.

At Western Center, we work regularly to address the racism embedded in our state and federal legal, health, and economic systems. For example, in the past five years, we stopped local governments from unjustly stripping Californians – many of whom are Black and Latinx – of their driver’s licenses, and we co-sponsored a law that dismantles the state’s money bail system, which keeps people (disproportionately people of color) locked up solely because they can’t afford to pay their way out. Currently, we are co-sponsoring a bill that would require implicit bias training for perinatal health care providers to help save the lives of Black mothers in California, because their risk of dying from pregnancy is five times higher than for other groups in the state.

Taking a page from Ta-Nehesi Coates, I trace what happened to Stephon Clark back to this country’s enslavement of Black people and the institutions that followed after abolition, from Reconstruction to present-day racial profiling and deadly healthcare disparities – all of which are structured around white supremacy. As conservative columnist David Brooks recently expressed in a New York Times opinion piece in support of reparations, the “sin” and “injury” of slavery “…shows up today as geographic segregation, the gigantic wealth gap, the lack of a financial safety net, but also the lack of the psychological and moral safety net that comes when society has a history of affirming: You belong. You are us. You are equal.”

I take heart knowing Western Center is part of the ongoing movement that lays bare these injuries and fights for the true systemic change necessary to heal them.

We Stand United Against Trump’s Divisive Public Charge Rule

Western Center’s Mona Tawatao shared her wisdom on the Trump Administration’s proposed Public Charge rules in the California Health Report. An excerpt is below, you can read the full piece here.

 

In this country, we believe that our value and ability to contribute to society should not be based on how we look or how much money in our wallets. These principles of fairness and equal opportunity are what unite us as a nation.

The Trump administration’s proposed public charge rule flouts these core values. It is yet another one of the President Trump’s schemes to divide us. This is the president who has also torn apart families seeking asylum protection at our southern border and declared a “national emergency,” bypassing Congress and our Constitution, in an attempt to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.   

The proposed public charge rule, introduced last October, would allow the government to favor the wealthy in deciding whether a person can join loved ones or continue on the lawful path to obtain a green card. It would tell families who earn under $62,000 that they need not apply—regardless of what they can contribute to our country.  

study by the Migration Policy Institute predicts that the proposed rule’s arbitrary factors would also favor immigrants from predominantly white countries, versus those from predominantly Latino countries. A rule that would codify a preferential immigration policy based on race would not only violate the fundamental right to equal protection under the law; it would take us backward at a time when so many communities and advocates are moving forward to undo the structural racism embedded in our society. 

The proposed rule further defies common sense in its inconsistency: It says its purpose is to promote self-sufficiency, yet it would penalize people for utilizing, even temporarily, supports like Medicaid and the anti-hunger and nutrition program called SNAP that actually help people remain healthy, go to work, care for their families and do well in school. 

Newsom’s Made Poverty a Priority—But Women Have Been Working on It for Years

Children’s advocates were thrilled when Gov. Gavin Newsom came out big for them on Jan. 10 in his first budget proposal. He called for phasing in universal preschool, putting money into state-funded child care and investing in education for child care workers. State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said it’s clear Newsom will be an ally on social issues.

“And we’re also clear that we also helped set the table for him to have the luxury of coming in in 2019 and making these declarations and having money to spend,” she said.

…Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said women leaders in the Senate and Assembly drove poverty-related policies even while the state was dealing with a budget crisis.

“You saw women stepping forward and saying that poverty, that family poverty, that poverty among female-led households, was an important policy issue,” she said. “And you saw them apply this kind of creativity and big thinking that normally had been reserved for issues that weren’t involving poor children and their mothers.”

Read more here

Nonprofit Dental Insurer Under Scrutiny For ‘Flagrant’ Spending

Dental insurance giant Delta Dental of California is facing mounting criticism for paying its CEO exorbitantly, flying board members and their companions to Barbados for a meeting, and spending a small fraction of its revenue on charitable work — all while receiving significant state and federal tax breaks because of its nonprofit status.

Now, the company — which has 36.5 million enrollees in 15 states and the District of Columbia — is hoping to pay $155 million to acquire a 49.5 percent stake in for-profit medical and dental insurer Moda Health

…In December, Consumer Reports, California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, Health Access and the Western Center on Law & Poverty penned a letter to California regulators asking them to assess whether it’s appropriate for Delta Dental to be investing in a for-profit insurer.

Read more here