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When you find a parking ticket under your windshield wiper, you might not think about how you pay the same amount as a person with an identical ticket the next car over. But recently, the city of San Francisco created a program called the Financial Justice Project to take a closer look at the way smaller fines can have an outsized effect on the poor. From member station KALW, Jeremy Dalmas reports.
JEREMY DALMAS, BYLINE: 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. But then...
ECHO ROWE: It was a Sunday night, and I was working. And I just left to take a break to move my car.
DALMAS: When she got to the space, Rowe's 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 she couldn't afford to pay off the tickets or get the car out of impounds. The towing company eventually sold it off. Years later, she still owes $1,600 to the city.
ROWE: I don't see myself really paying them until I have, like, a normal full-time job with benefits. But right now, I do three part-time jobs, so...
DALMAS: This punishment seems too severe to the city of San Francisco and its treasurer, so they've established the new Financial Justice Project to look for ways to make smaller fines more fair to poorer residents. Anne Stuhldreher directs the project.
ANNE STUHLDREHER: We find that the practice is often high pain - it can dig people into financial holes that they can't get out of - and low gain. Less revenue is brought in than is anticipated.
DALMAS: Stuhldreher points to a similar situation that got national attention in Ferguson, Mo. In 2015, the U.S. Justice Department released a report saying that police there were focusing more on fining citizens than on public safety.
STUHLDREHER: Things like having your grass too high in your yard, driving with a broken taillight. And oftentimes people couldn't pay it. And unfortunately what we learned is that this is a national problem.
DALMAS: One that Stuhldreher thinks needs regional solutions. A few-hundred-dollar municipal ticket hits a day care worker a lot harder than it hits a doctor. So one possibility her office is considering - look at how much someone makes in a day, and charge fines based on a percentage of that. This is already done in parts of Europe, and it was even attempted in the U.S. 30 years ago.
JUDITH GREENE: More people paid in full, and the court system actually ended up collecting more money.
DALMAS: Judith Greene created those programs in parts of New York and Arizona. She runs a criminal justice reform nonprofit called Justice Strategies. But those programs from the '80s did not last. That was the tough-on-crime era. Now, though, Greene thinks there's renewed support in places that are focusing on financial justice.
GREENE: Public opinion has shifted, and crime is down.
DALMAS: So Greene says its 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 the Financial Justice Project's Anne Stuhldreher worries that other municipalities might not have the same momentum.
STUHLDREHER: We know that the research tells us that when budget times are tough, that's a lot of times when governments increase fines and fees.
DALMAS: Stuhldreher'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 trying to solve the problem. For NPR News, I'm Jeremy Dalmas in San Francisco.
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