”Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic Court System”, a new report we released last week, shows that Californians pay some of the highest fines and fees in the country. For example, we pay more than three times the national average for running a red light. The high fines and fees create hardships for many middle-class Californians and often cause people with lower incomes to lose their driver licenses, lose jobs, and/or go to jail.
Because of racial profiling and over-policing in communities of color, African-American and Hispanic individuals are more likely to receive traffic tickets than others. They are far more likely to be cited for driving without a license without also being cited for an offense the officer could observe before the stop. And African-Americans are four to sixteen times more likely to be booked into county jail on a charge related to not being able to pay a citation, according to new Bay Area data included in the report.
California has the opportunity to create permanent reforms to this unfair, unjust system. Governor Jerry Brown has come out in favor of reform, and in his budget, proposes to put an end to suspending driver licenses just because someone cannot afford to pay. And two bills currently making their way through the California Legislature would address many of the disparities and recommendations identified in Paying More for Being Poor:
- SB 185 (Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys) would overhaul the court debt and license suspension system for impoverished traffic defendants.
- AB 412 (Ting, D-San Francisco) would stop courts from imposing $300 civil assessments (an extra penalty fine) on people who can’t afford to pay tickets in traffic court.
In the report, we recommend establishing a process for assessing fines and fees based on ability to pay and allowing voluntary community service in lieu of monetary payments. While opponents fret that income-based fines would cost the state much-needed revenue, the California Traffic Tickets / Infractions Amnesty Program collected over three times more delinquent debt per case ($151 per income-sensitive amnesty case) than other court-ordered delinquent debt collections ($45 per case).
We also recommend that the state stop suspending driver licenses for failure to pay and stop arresting Californians on infraction warrants for failure to pay or for driving on a license that is suspended for failure to pay.