Today, more than at any time, California has an opportunity to continue its leadership in building a fair society. So far, it has missed the mark on an issue that significantly affects more than 4 million residents: traffic fines and fees.
California has among the highest traffic fines and fees in the country – and the steepest consequences for traffic violations are reserved for those who can’t afford the fines and fees. This results in crippling debt for the least fortunate Californians, from whom traffic courts have difficulty collecting any fees at all.
According to the Federal Reserve, nearly half of American households cannot afford $400 in unexpected costs. Yet in California, if a family misses a payment on a traffic fine, they can be slapped with a $300 late fee, raising the cost to as much as $500 for a ticket. That can be followed by a suspended driver’s license or jail time, even for non-safety related violations, such as late registration. Of course, this makes it less likely they can pay the fines.
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Further, studies have unequivocally concluded that establishing fees or fines based on ability to pay, rather than flat rates, increases collections.
Let’s also talk about fairness. It is well-documented that these sky-high fees and fines fall disproportionately on African Americans and Latinos. They are more likely to be stopped for minor offenses, or for no valid reason. Difficulty paying fines often leads to cycles of debt with lifelong implications. A recent report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, funded by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, found that Bay Area sheriffs were four to 16 times more likely to book African Americans and Latinos into jail for an offense related to failure to pay traffic fines.
So what is the public safety benefit of current levels of fees and fines? When Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill in 2011 that added a new penalty to help alleviate budget cuts, he stated that loading “more and more costs on traffic tickets has been too easy a source of new revenue. Fines should be based on what is reasonable punishment, not on paying for more general fund activities.”
The role of traffic courts should be to protect public safety – not to generate revenue. A recent report by the Civil Rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice found that courts and law enforcement agencies in Ferguson, Mo., are systematically taking money from poor people.
With all of these facts as a backdrop, Senate Bill 185 was introduced last year. It would create a system of traffic fines and fees that will fairly punish lawbreakers while not sending poor Californians into a spiral of bills and fines that could lead to jail time. The bill will ensure payments are designed to help people make amends, not put them under water. With SB 185, California can change direction and ensure that traffic fees and fines are based on fairness and common sense.
Robert Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat, represents the 18th state Senate district and can be contacted at Senator.Hertzberg@senate.ca.gov.
Emmett D. Carson is president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.