A ticket should not lead to an insurmountable debt

For some people, a ticket is nothing more than an annoyance. Pay it, curse yourself for getting caught, and move on. For many Californians, however, a single bill is the start of a debt spiral that lands them hundreds or thousands of dollars in arrears. This must change.

The culprit is what is called a “civil assessment”. This is a penalty imposed by the courts when a person does not show up for a court date or pay a fine on time. State law allows fines of up to $300 per incident, one of the highest penalties in the nation. Courts usually assess the full amount. Californians can decide if it’s because the courts get some of their funding from those fines.

The fine can be applied multiple times for multiple missed deadlines or hearings. The result is compounded debt owed by Californians least able to pay. The challenge is especially acute for people of color who are still arrested and fined at a disproportionately high rate.

A simple speeding ticket can initially cost a few hundred dollars once all court costs and surcharges are factored in. But for people who live paycheck to paycheck, those hundreds of dollars take away from paying bills, rent, or groceries. If they can’t afford or miss payment, a civil assessment could more than double the original fine. Eventually, they could lose their license and face mounting debt.

A report released last week by Debt Free Justice California documents the plight of those caught up in civil assessments. The report is framed with heavy language that reflects the group’s agenda, for example calling the assessment a “poverty penalty” and a “hidden fee”. Look beyond that, however, and the data collected by the group identifies a serious problem in the state. For example, two-thirds of Californians said they could not afford a $300 fine on top of an original ticket.

The Debt Free report notes that there are better ways to get people to pay their fines and show up for court hearings. Other states send SMS reminders which have proven to be more effective.

It’s easy to wiggle your finger and say, “Don’t commit the crime if you can’t pay the fine.” It is a privileged view. Traffic fines do not vary with income and therefore hit those with lower incomes the hardest. They should probably evolve to serve as a fair deterrent and penalty, but that’s not under discussion now.

What is under discussion is to reduce the scale of civilian assessments. Governor Gavin Newsom has asked the Legislature to lower the maximum penalty to $150. This won’t make the fine affordable for everyone, but it would be a step in the right direction. He also proposes to allocate 50 million dollars to the courts to compensate for the loss of income.

Newsom isn’t innovating here and isn’t particularly aggressive. The Press Democrat documented similar issues in 2015. So-Gov. Jerry Brown recommended reducing the rate to $50. Instead, he and the legislature approved an amnesty program to reduce outstanding fines at the time.

This one-off aid left a failing system in place. Newsom wants to make it less broken so that fewer Californians are caught in state-imposed debt for minor traffic violations. Legislators should help him.

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