The way California collects fines, fees is almost criminal

Fines and fees intended to deter illegal behavior have morphed into a staple of public funding, nationally and in California, and are unfairly burdening the poor.
Fines and fees intended to deter illegal behavior have morphed into a staple of public funding, nationally and in California, and are unfairly burdening the poor. aseng@sacbee.com

What happened to LaShanya Breazell happens to poor people every day in California.

A few years ago, the mother of four says, she was driving a little too fast along Florin Road in south Sacramento. A cop spotted her, flipped on his lights and pulled her over. He ran her driver’s license and said it was suspended, to Breazell’s surprise.

He’d have to tow her car, he said, handing her a $100 speeding ticket.

Breazell swears she never got a notice from the DMV about her license. But her car – a paid off, late ’90s Cadillac Seville – was impounded. It was the only car her family had.

Within days, Breazell knew she would never be able to afford all of the rapidly mounting fines and fees, which soon topped $1,500. So she left the Seville in the impound lot for good. She and her family learned to take light rail and paid others to drive them around.

“We managed like that for three or four months until I saved up (enough) money to get another car,” Breazell said bitterly. “It all boils down to money. And the working poor don’t have it.”

In too many ways, this is what our criminal justice system has come to. Aimed at curbing illegal behavior, it has morphed into a shameful system of generating revenue for a smorgasbord of government programs – often off the backs of the poor.

This isn’t about punishment. It’s about over-punishment in the name of shoring up budgets.

Get a ticket for running a red light or another infraction and the penalty will help fund the courts. But it also could end up in the California Beverage Container Recycling Fund, Cigarette Tax Fund, Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund, State Fire Marshal Fireworks Enforcement and Disposal Fund, Private Security Services Fund or even the Fish and Game Propagation Fund. The list is long.

“It brings me a great deal of discomfort, I must say, when I look at all the buckets hanging off of our fines and fees,” California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board last month.

Fail to pay the ticket, or miss a court date to discuss the infraction with a judge, and you’ll risk an even higher fine and a suspended license. Millions of Californians have found themselves in this situation, many simply because they couldn’t afford to pay a $40 fine that became $200 after fees and assessments.

California has a nearly $10 billion outstanding balance for unpaid court-ordered fines. This can’t go on. Like bail, which also disproportionately punishes the poor, the way fines and fees are levied is ripe for reform.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, has a bill that would change the way drivers are punished for failing to show up in court or pay a ticket for a minor traffic violation. SB 881 would decouple license suspensions from those offenses.

The bill is set for its first hearing Tuesday in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. It should be passed.

Already, an amnesty program that began as another Hertzberg bill is helping tens of thousands of drivers get out from under the fines and fees of unpaid tickets. About 60,000 people have paid off their citations at a discount. Another 40,000 have applied to get their licenses reinstated.

Ultimately, the senator says he wants to means test fines based on how much people can pay.

A national task force composed of representatives from the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators is considering similar ideas in a search for best practices. The U.S. Justice Department also has weighed in. Last month, it issued a sharply worded open letter, warning courts about punishing people with short-sighted bail practices and high fines and fees.

“Individuals may confront escalating debt,” it warned, “face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape.”

It’s a needed reminder. New York City collected a record $1.9 billion in fines and fees last fiscal year, driven mostly by an increase in motor vehicle, littering and noise pollution violations. And of course, Ferguson, Mo., besides its controversial police shooting, was caught ordering police to ante up much of the city’s operating budget from fines on its poor, mostly black residents.

Nationally in 1986, only 12 percent of those incarcerated were also fined. By 2004, that had jumped to 37 percent. By 2014, some 44 states also charged offenders for probation and parole supervision, up from 26 states in 1990.

California distributes between $1.8 billion and $2 billion every year from fines and fees. Some of it, 37 percent, goes to the state judicial system. The rest is shared among the state, counties and cities, and is money many agencies say they depend on.

That’s is why kicking the fines and fees habit won’t be easy. This isn’t like bail, where the current system only really benefits the bail bonds industry. The revenue from fines and fees pads budgets, and any sweeping effort to change that will surely be met with protests. “It’s going to create a hole and we have to fill it,” says Hertzberg. “It’s as simple as that.”

Of course, it actually won’t be simple. But lawmakers have a moral imperative to bring punishment back from the brink of exploitation. Without change, people who live paycheck to paycheck – people like Breazell – will continue to pay the price.