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Tickets drive the poor deeper into poverty

Gov. Jerry Brown’s has called California’s unfair system of levying and elevating traffic fines a “hellhole of desperation.” But the governor also is offering a smart solution.

First, the problem: When state and local governments have needed money, one easy way to get it was to jack up penalties for traffic infractions. No one has much pity on those who break the law, at least until they get a ticket for rolling a stop sign themselves.

A minor infraction might carry only a base fine of $100. But with various state and county add-ons – to pay for new courthouses, multiple surcharges, the DNA identification fund, the emergency medical services fund, etc. – it actually can cost more than $500 to clear a ticket. If people fail to pay the fine by the deadline, the cost can rise to $815.

The fees and penalties have become so high that many poor people couldn’t afford to pay. As a result, the uncollected debt, which had been $5.5 billion in 2009, grew to $9.7 billion by 2016, according to the governor’s latest budget notes. Calling this a “debt” is a fiction; the money will never be collected.

People who can’t pay often skip court. Then judges issue warrants for their arrest and notify the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV then suspends the license. That happened to 4.2 million people in an eight-year period through 2015, a legislative staff report said.

It’s all part of the price of being poor and it makes it worse. Without a driver’s license, people who owe fines can’t legally drive. If they can’t drive in California, they can’t get to work. And if they aren’t working, they will have no money to pay their bills.

But of course many will still drive. Then, if they are caught driving without a license, they face misdemeanor charges. Those can, and do, land them in jail putting their lives in an even deeper hole.

In his new budget, Brown is proposing decoupling the inability to pay traffic fines with the potential loss of a driver’s licenses. In the interest of fairness, that is the right thing to do.

The Western Center on Law and Poverty has made the problem a cause, pointing out in multiple reports the burdens of an unjust law falls most heavily on blacks and Latinos. In Oakland, for instance, 26.5 percent of all drivers are black, but 70 percent of those pulled over by police are black. An ACLU study in Fresno found Latino drivers are 4 times more likely to be pulled over for “probable cause.” But a study by the Los Angeles police department found black drivers were 37 percent less likely to be carrying weapons and 24 percent less likely to have drugs.

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