Unfair Punishment Part Two: Sentenced to Poverty 

The state often traps formerly incarcerated people — even those convicted of low-level offenses — with insurmountable debts.

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"They took all of it, like every single bit that was in the bank account," recalled Teeoni, noting that they only realized what had happened when their checks started bouncing. "What is the point of me having a job if you're going to take all of my money?"

"I was devastated," added Keyuna. "We had a nice chunk of change saved up ... and they took everything."

And it didn't end there. In January of this year, Teeoni had $316 more taken out of her paycheck, and learned that debt collectors intend to start taking a whopping 25 percent of her income. These deductions apparently will continue until she pays off a $2,000 debt, separate from the fines she first paid upon her release.

Teeoni said the lost income is already a significant strain on her family. "I can't not feed everybody," she said. "I could lose my house. I could lose my car. Am I going to lose everything that I've been working for all this time? Because I came out here to change everything and it's like, as soon as I changed, you decided, 'you know what? Here, pay this.'"

Teeoni said she understands the importance of taking responsibility for her past actions, but noted that she has served her time and has already paid thousands of dollars. The lingering fines seem meaningless and unbeatable to her. "Should I just quit my job and go back to what I was doing and then they can't find me?"

Teeoni said she would never break the law again, but noted that, as a case manager, she regularly sees clients who, in the face of unpaid fines, start selling drugs or disappear altogether.

One woman with large restitution fines, who requested anonymity in order to protect her future job prospects, recalled through tears a time when she had to choose between paying for her cap and gown for her post-graduate ceremony at UC Berkeley and paying her next restitution fee. Another woman, a San Francisco mother of four, also requested anonymity due to the fact that she has temporarily stopped paying restitution because she can't afford it. She said that after she was released from jail, she couldn't purchase furniture for her children's bedroom because of steep fines she owed. Her difficult financial situation is preventing her from moving out of a bad neighborhood, and she can't find any full-time work while she has unpaid debts.

These challenges are common for low-income people saddled with hefty fines, said Woods, the public defender. "In the bigger scheme of things, it's such a low priority, because they're worried about housing and food ... getting their kids to school," he said of restitution fines. "If you have addiction issues, you're just worried about staying off the rock. There are so many other bigger issues that they are dealing with than the restitution fund fine."

Critics argue that California could clearly reduce these restitution burdens without bankrupting its financial aid program for victims. The budget for fiscal year 2014-15 includes a nearly $62 million restitution fund "balance" or "reserve for economic uncertainties."

Jon Myers, deputy executive officer of public affairs and outreach for the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, argued that the program overall does not have cash to spare and has generally been spending more than it takes in each year. In 2012-13, the fund spent roughly $112 million while it collected roughly $108 million, the majority of which came from fines. The roughly $4.4 million difference illustrates the program's "structural imbalance," Myers said. "The fund is not completely secure," he said, noting that state officials recently reduced payment rates for certain expenses for victims to help ensure the solvency of the program's finances.

"I work with victims every day. I hear stories about a mother who lost a child and has to pay for a funeral she can't afford," he said. "What's the cost of the casket that a mother has to pay? A domestic violence victim that has to go out and find a new home?"

His sympathy, he added, always falls to victims in debt, not criminal offenders.

For roughly three years, Chloe Turner worked two jobs seven days a week, while going to school full-time. It was exhausting, but necessary, she said, given that her unpaid restitution fines prevented her from accessing certain student loans. Still, she completed an entrepreneurship-training program at Stanford Law School as well as a post-prison health worker certificate program at City College of San Francisco. And last year, she graduated from the University of San Francisco with a bachelor's degree in organizational behavior and leadership. Her plan is to eventually go to law school — a dream she likely have to put on hold until she pays off all of her restitution.

The Newsoms, who are close friends of Turner, will also likely have difficulty achieving their long-term goals while they are still in debt. They said they want to someday start their own youth program to offer an alternative to gangs. But that would require a level of financial stability, which, at this point, seems unattainable, said Teeoni. "I don't have money to save anymore. ... And if I put money in the bank to try and save up, they are going to take it away from me."

Turner is eager to advance her education and career partly because she wants to someday work as a public defender. "I really want to make a difference with the clients I work with," she said. "I could advocate for them on a different level. I know where they come from. That would give me an advantage."

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