Lose your car over a parking ticket? San Francisco scrutinizes harsh punishments

May 1, 2017

Parking isn’t easy in San Francisco.

When Echo Rowe moved here from Seattle in 2012, she had to move her Ford Ranger every couple of days to avoid street sweeping. It was hard to keep track of, and she started getting multiple tickets every month. Then it got worse.

“It was a Sunday night,” she recalls. “I was working and I went to take a break to move my car.”

When Rowe got to the space, her truck had been towed. She’d racked up over $2,000 in parking tickets. At the time she was making a little over minimum wage and couldn’t afford to pay off the tickets or get the car out of impound. The towing company eventually sold it off.

Years later she still owes $1,600 to the city.

“I don't see myself really paying them until I have like a normal full-time job with benefits,” Rowe explains. “But right now I do 3 part-time jobs.”

Around 4,000 cars get sold off in San Francisco every year because their owners can’t pay. Rowe herself knows two other people who have lost their cars because of parking tickets. I spoke with one man who was living in his car while he worked a retail job. After his car got towed, he not only lost the place he slept every night, but he also lost his job. His car was eventually sold off by the towing company.

Financial Justice Project

To many in city government, these punishments are too severe--among them are San Francisco’s treasurer. So the city established a program called the Financial Justice Project to look for ways to make smaller fines more fair to poorer residents.

Anne Stuhldreher directs the Financial Justice Project
Credit Jeremy Dalmas

 “We find the practice is often high pain: it can dig people into financial holes they can't get out of,” says Anne Stuhldreher, who directs the project.  “...and (fines are) low gain: less revenue is brought in than is anticipated.”

This is likely the first and only program of it’s kind in the country. Right now they’re researching the problem and are hoping to present solutions to elected officials later this spring.

Stuhldreher first started thinking about this after the protests in Ferguson, MO. In 2015 the U.S. Justice Department released a report saying that police in Ferguson were focusing more on fining citizens than on public safety.

“Things like having your grass too high in your yard, driving with a broken tail light.” Stuhldreher says these were all common citations in Ferguson, “and often times people couldn't pay it. Unfortunately what we learned is that this isn’t just a Ferguson problem, this is a national problem,” she says.

Ferguson is a city of 20,000 people; in 2013 there were 30,000 citations in a single year. After that report on Ferguson, San Francisco City Treasurer José Cisneros wanted to start tackling the problem locally. He started the Financial Justice Project in the fall of 2016.

“If somebody only makes $10,000 a year and gets a $300 or $400 ticket,” Cisneros explains, “that's going to hit them and harm a lot harder than somebody's who's making 200,000 a year. Is it really our intention to have different impact on two people who committed the same offense? I'm guessing it was not our intention,” he adds.

And this isn’t just going into debt or losing your car. Currently one in six drivers in California have a suspended license because of unpaid fines. San Francisco also became the first city in the state to stop such suspensions last year. And now that the Financial Justice Project is looking deeper into the problem, one big idea they have is to base fees on a person’s income: fines could be determined based on a percentage of someone’s weekly earnings.

Basing fines on a person's income

Income-based fines are already common in parts of Europe, and was attempted in the U.S. thirty years ago. Judith Greene, who created those programs in New York City and Phoenix, AZ says they worked well. “More people paid in full and the court system actually ended up collecting more money.”

The 80s was the tough-on-crime era, and those programs didn’t last. But Greene thinks that there’s now the support for these sliding-scale fees in places that are focusing on criminal justice reform.

“Public opinion has shifted,” says Green, who currently runs a think tank called Justice Strategies. “Crime is down, and so it's time may have come around again.”

San Francisco is in a good position to tackle this: it’s a well-off city with a lot of economic inequality. But Stuhldreher worries that other municipalities might not have the same momentum.

“We know that when budget times are tough,” says Stuhldreher, “that's a lot of times when governments increase fines and fees.”

She’s concerned that with looming cuts to federal grants under the Trump administration, cities may be eyeing fines as an easy way to bring in money -- just as she is making process towards solving the problem.