Gov. Brown Wants To Deliver Poor From ‘Hellhole Of Desperation’ – Proposes Amnesty On Traffic Fines

Picking the pockets of the poor, through traffic fines and fees, to pad local governments’ budgets has become a headline-grabbing scandal in this country. A Department of Justice investigation into the conflict between police and residents in Ferguson, Mo. revealed a corrupt governmental system that profited off the backs of those with the fewest resources.

The problem has been exposed elsewhere, including in California. Over 4.8 million Californians have had their driver’s licenses suspended since 2006 because of traffic fines. Only 83,000 have been reinstated in that time, meaning that nearly 4.8 million people still are bearing the consequences of not being able to drive. Obviously, this means people without financial resources.

The Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights (LCCR) of San Francisco recently issued a report titled “How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality In California.” LCCR summarized the vicious cycle that traps the poor:

These suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, further impeding their ability to pay their debt. They harm credit ratings. They raise public safety concerns. Ultimately they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome.

Gov. Jerry Brown has reportedly been in discussions with the U.S. Department of Justice over the problem, as a civil rights issue. Calling California’s traffic courts a “hellhole of desperation” for the poor, Brown is proposing an 18 month amnesty program, beginning October 1, for those who can’t afford to pay. The proposal would cut their debt in half and reduce administrative fees from $300 to $50.

Not only have people lost their licenses due to a lack of money, but they have also frequently been denied a hearing at traffic courts unless they pay the full fine up front. In other words, pay the fine and then the court will determine whether you owe it. As Christine Sun, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Northern California, emphasized, this is a violation of people’s rights:

Everyone is entitled to their day in court and that includes the poor.

It’s doubtful whether Brown’s proposal goes far enough. Michael Armas of Oakland is a prime example. He hasn’t been able to find a job in construction during the last year and a half because he can’t drive. Meanwhile, his traffic debts — for violations such as an improperly displayed license plate — have mounted to $4,500. Under the governor’s proposal, he’d still owe $2,250. Armas asks:

How do you expect to pay something when you have no job, and you can’t get a job without your license?

It’s a vicious cycle. The poor need real help to dig out of the hole that questionable government policies have put them in.

The LCCR goes further in its recommendations:

  • End the use of license suspensions as a collection tool for citation-related debt.
  • Ensure that access to the courts and due process do not depend on income.
  • Standardize payment plans and reduce the financial burden of citation fines for low-income people based on “ability to pay.”
  • Implement additional procedures by which the millions of people with current license suspensions can seek relief.

California state senators are looking at legislation that would allow drivers to get their licenses back if they repaid their debt on a sliding scale. If the legislature and the governor are serious about reform and protecting residents’ civil rights, they need to go as far as it takes to put licenses back in the hands of 4.8 million people.

Feature photo adapted from Wikipedia [source 1, source 2]