Orion Hurst, 42, stands near his car at Lemon Grove Park on June 16, 2022. / Photo by Jesse Marx

The San Diego County Superior Court, per an agreement struck earlier this summer in Sacramento, will wipe nearly $200 million worth of debt it imposed on hundreds of thousands and cease collection efforts.

Superior Court judge Michael S. Groch, who oversees the criminal division downtown, filed an order last month vacating the unpaid balances on fines otherwise known as civil assessments prior to July 1. Groch’s order includes a list of the 681,531 cases entitled to relief. It runs 1,444 pages long, giving a sense of how common it was for judges to hit defendants with late fees when they didn’t show up in court or missed a payment.

“Although state general fund revenue was allocated to the judicial branch to make up for the statewide elimination/reduction of civil assessment revenue, San Diego did not get 100% reimbursement,” said Emily Cox, a spokesperson for the court, in an email. “Therefore, to make up a shortfall between the amount of civil assessment revenue [versus] what was ultimately received, we are proposing spending reductions and hiring freezes to ensure that we have a balanced budget.”

For decades, local courts have relied on fines and late fees as a source of funding, and San Diego was a pioneer of the model. Officials portrayed it as a means of incentivizing people to pay their underlying ticket or face monetary consequences, but many have trouble meeting it. 

One Lemon Grove resident, a college student at the time working gig jobs, told us in June that he got a ticket for not having valid registration. He got a payment plan, but when he missed a due date, the original fine nearly doubled overnight. It took two years to fully pay down.

“The majority of those punished for non-payment are those who can’t simply pay,” said Rio Scharf, an attorney and member of Debt Free Justice California. 

He and other advocates have argued that civil assessments are unconstitutional and unethical, a regressive tax that pushes low-income people further into poverty. In a lawsuit filed earlier this year, a group of debtors traced the origins of the program to California’s tough-on-crime policies in the 1990s, which strained the resources of trial courts. It was intended to ease overcrowding in jails by seeking monetary penalties rather than bench warrants.

Late fees aren’t completely going away, though. After negotiations this summer with lawmakers over the state’s nearly $100 billion surplus, Gov. Gavin Newsom agreed to wipe the debt on existing civil assessments but didn’t abolish the practice going forward. Late fees are now capped at $100.

It was a half-victory for advocates, as the nonprofit Debt Free Justice California Coalition vowed to keep fighting. Any amount, they contend, is a burden, undermining the relief being offered now. 

Meanwhile: The Union-Tribune reports that three glass panels at the central courthouse downtown have shattered in recent months. Court officials are constructing a protective canopy around all four sides to protect pedestrians while investigating what caused the breakage. 

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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