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Traffic Ticket-to-Prison Pipeline: New Report Reveals Racial Bias In California’s Traffic Court System

California’s failure-to-pay policy for traffic tickets has resulted in over 4 million suspended drivers’ licenses in recent years. (Photo by RichLegg/E+/Getty Images)

California’s traffic fines are some of the steepest in the country, and a new report shows that the state’s current policies for those unable to pay are disproportionately affecting Blacks and Latinos.

The report, published by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights last week, covers the most recent information on California’s traffic court system and highlights how its policies unfairly impact residents of low-income, nonwhite communities.

The consequences are often harsher for Californians who can’t afford to pay their traffic fines, including license suspension, arrest, jail time, wage garnishment, towing of their vehicles and even job loss, according to the report. In the end, affected drivers are forced to ante up even more cash just for being poor. Meanwhile, those who can afford to pay are let off with a slap on the wrist for the same minor traffic offenses.

“In Bay Area counties, the burden of the current policies fall heavily on people of color,” wrote authors of the new LCCR study, “Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic Court System. “African-American residents are four-to-16 times more likely to be booked into jail on a failure-to-pay-related charge. This rate is higher than the [disproportion] found in initial traffic stops.

“Punishing people for failure to pay is doubling down on the racial bias in the system,” they added.

LCCR legal director Elisa Della-Piana explained that, while the base fees for California’s traffic tickets are relatively lower or on par with those of other states, its the add-on fees that send ticket prices through the roof.

“The California fees get so high because every ticket, whether it’s a driving ticket or not, … has add-on fees that go to special funds in California for things like court construction and police officer training,” Della-Piana said. “The legislature has been using people as an ATM, saying, ‘We want a way to fund this kind of project, and so we’re going to add on these fees.’ And the fees have just gotten out of control.”

Researchers focused their studies on nine Bay Area counties to create fiscal analyses of the state’s policy, finding that California’s current policy of suspending licenses for nonpayment greatly limits the ability of many Californians to support themselves and their families. The report also highlighted how the state’s failure-to-pay-or-appear policies only stand to worsen the racial bias already present in police traffic stops across the country.

“So, we know that there has been racial bias shown in traffic stops and that people of color, especially Black people, are more likely to get pulled over,” Della-Piana said. “[However], it was surprising to see that the process of having such high fines, suspending people’s licenses and arresting people who drove after they couldn’t afford to pay a ticket — it was just surprising to see how much starker the [racial] disparities were.”

The state’s tricky traffic court policies surrounding failure to pay have resulted in more than four million suspended driver’s licenses in recent years, a California Dept. of Motor Vehicles report from 2015 showed. In April, a DMV point-in-count revealed that almost 600,000 Californians lost their licenses simply because they couldn’t afford to pay or didn’t show up in court.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown recognized how much the problematic laws were costing low-income residents and sought to rectify the issue with a traffic amnesty program. Signed in October 2015, the California Traffic Tickets/Infractions Amnesty Program slashed fines on pre-2013 traffic tickets by 80 percent for poorer applicants and allowed affected drivers to set up payment plans to get their licenses back. The innovative plan helped nearly 200,000 Californian’s regain their driver’s licenses, according to the LCCR report.

Brown’s program was only temporary, however, and ended last month. Now, legal advocates are scrambling to find new solutions to end the state’s traffic ticket-to-prison pipeline.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) introduced a bill that would ban the courts from automatically stripping drivers of their license for failure to pay, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s “Reveal News” reported. The measure also would force judges to consider a resident’s ability to pay before slapping them with hefty fines and fees.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to give Californians who are struggling to make ends meet a chance to keep their driver’s licenses, keep their jobs and pay off traffic ticket fines,” Hertzberg said in a January press release. “We have to quit punishing people simply for being poor, and unfortunately, that’s what our justice system often does with high fines and fees for minor traffic offenses.”

The LCCR report also comes at a time when federal funds for civil legal aid groups is at risk of being cut. In March, President Donald Trump released a draft of his proposed budget, which included plans to eliminate the Legal Services Corporation, a public nonprofit that helps low-income Americans get representation in court proceedings. The group funds over a hundred civil legal-aid programs across the country, The Atlantic reported.

“Most Americans don’t really have an idea of what civil legal aid is, but the Legal Services Corporation is absolutely the backbone of our nation’s commitment to justice for all,” Martha Bergmark, a former LSC president, told the publication. “It’s just a devastating prospect to think that after such a long history of bipartisan support and commitment, that we would be at this stage.”

The LCCR, which also provides civic legal aid, noted that while the state’s traffic court is the primary point of contact with the court system, it is still relatively difficult for someone who cant’t afford to pay their ticket to resolve the issue. For one, none of the nine Bay Area counties analyzed in the report had information on alternative or payment-plan options for low-income Californians on their web pages, researchers found.

Authors of the report went on to argue that if California moved to overhaul its policy and stopped suspending licenses over failure to pay, the state could generate an estimated $70 billion-$140 billion in additional tax revenue from people who’d be able to work and bring in more income if they had a driver’s license. New research also suggests the state could actually rake in more money, from larger amounts of people, on overdue fines if it adopted a policy that assess fees that are within a resident’s ability to pay.

For Della-Piana, the most effective solutions to negating the traffic ticket-to-jail pipeline start with making the fines fairer and actually using “license suspension as a public safety tool, rather than a debt collection tool.”

“But I think the third thing that’s really important is, there should be a ban against arresting or incarcerating people for failure to pay,” she said. “Right now, bench warrants can be issued for infraction tickets and people are getting arrested after driving when they can’t afford to pay a ticket.

“Those arrests are taking away people’s freedom based on their lack of money.”


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