Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest budget offers a rather droll assessment of California’s unfair system of levying traffic fines, and a smart solution.
First, the problem: When the state and local governments needed money over the years, they would jack up penalties for traffic infractions.
People cited for a minor infraction might face a base $100 fine. But with various add-ons, the actual cost of clearing the ticket would rise to $541. And if people fail to pay the fine by the deadline, the cost would rise to $815.
The fees and penalties became so high that many poor people couldn’t afford to pay. As a result, the uncollected debt, which had been $5.5 billion in 2009, had grown to $9.7 billion this year, the governor’s latest budget notes. The supposed debt is a fiction; it will never be collected.
People who can’t pay often skip court. Judges will issue warrants for their arrest and will notify the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV then will suspend the individual’s license. That happened to 4.2 million people in an eight-year period ending in 2015, a legislative staff report said.
It’s all part of the price of being poor, and it’s counterproductive.
Without a driver’s license, people who owe fines can’t legally drive. If they can’t drive, they can’t work. And if they aren’t working, they will have no money to pay their bills. But of course many of them still drive. If they are caught driving without a license, they would face a misdemeanor, which could land them in jail and place them in an even deeper hole.
In his new budget, Brown is proposing decoupling the inability to pay traffic fines with the potential loss of driver’s licenses. In the interest of fairness, that makes a great deal of sense.
The Western Center on Law and Poverty has made the problem a cause, pointing out in multiple reports that the burden falls most heavily on blacks and Latinos. California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has been advocating an overhaul of the system of traffic penalties and the related bail system, which also falls heaviest on poor people.
As a result of 2015 legislation by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, the state granted amnesty to people who owed hefty traffic fines, allowing them to pay a discounted amount. In its first seven months, the bill allowed 100,000 people to reclaim their licenses and helped 132,000 clear their debts.
That was a good start. Decoupling the loss of a license from a person’s inability to pay would be a smart next step. And the state should study cutting the size of the fines and penalties to a level that people can actually pay.