CA Gov. Jerry Brown Just Proposed a Big Fix for "Traffic Debt"

May 27th 2015

Sarah Gray

Last week California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) proposed an amnesty program for poor residents who cannot pay traffic court-related fines and penalties. "It’s a hellhole of desperation and I think this amnesty can be a very good thing to both bring in money, to give people a chance to kind of pay at a discount," Brown said in a statement. Since 2006, unpaid penalties and fines have resulted in 4.8 million drivers license suspensions. Only 83,000 licenses were reinstated during that same period of time, according to the Associated Press.

The issue

The California justice system is gaining revenue from low-income residents, who are often minorities, and it creates a cycle of debt and mistrust -- not to mention the suspension of drivers licenses, which can make it difficult for some to make it to jobs, etc. The problem is being treated as a civil rights issue, and Brown is in discussions with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), a spokesman for the Governor's office stated. (It is however unclear if the DOJ is investigating the California court system.)

This civil rights issue is not unique to California. The practice of large court fines and fees -- which unjustly hurt the poor, and minorities -- gained national attention after a report was released by ArchCity Defenders, a week after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri back in August of 2014. In Ferguson, court fines and fees were found to be the city's second-largest source of income: In 2013 the city collected $2.6 million from these penalties.

President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which released its initial findings in March of 2015, also cited ticketing and fining the poor, as a means of driving revenue, as an issue that should be addressed to improve policing and community relations.

"Law enforcement agencies and municipalities should refrain from practices requiring officers to issue a predetermined number of tickets, citations, arrests, or summonses, or to initiate investigative contacts with citizens for reasons not directly related to improving public safety, such as generating revenue," the initial task force report states. 

In California

In California specifically, budget cuts pushed the courts into a reliance on tickets and fees. And the cost of penalties has increased dramatically, according to the Associated Press. Two decades ago, the AP reports, a fine for running a red light was $103, now it can be up to $490, and if a person fails to pay the initial fee the fine jumps -- which can send low-income families who cannot pay the initial fine into debt.

On top of that, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that some traffic courts do not let people have a hearing until they have paid their fines -- meaning that sometimes the poor could not afford the right of due process in court. This practice is sometimes referred to as "pay-to-play," and on Monday of this week, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye directed the Judicial Council to make it clear to courts that people can appear for hearings without having paid their fines up front.

The solution.

Specifics of Brown's proposal are not yet known, however, it is apparently similar to a bill proposed by State Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D). Hertzberg's plan includes instituting a debt payment plan -- based on income -- in exchange for reinstating drivers licenses.