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Home | Newsroom | Miscellaneous | After Ferguson, States Struggle To Crack Down On Court Debt

After Ferguson, States Struggle To Crack Down On Court Debt

……because fees, surcharges and court costs serve as a source of revenue, they’re hard to eliminate. “What’s happened is you have these constituencies that have sort of built a reliance on a stream of revenue that derives from traffic tickets,” said Mike Herald, a legislative advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a legal services group.

Herald’s group has tried for years to get the California Legislature to reform traffic courts. A major challenge has always been the price tag.

A bill proposed last year, for example, would have restored driver’s licenses to delinquent debtors who agreed to pay in installments or perform community service. The bill died after the state calculated it would cost local and state governments $6.7 million in lost collections and $1.4 million in increased court costs.

But traffic court reform gained momentum recently when the Western Center and other legal services groups released a report titled “Not Just a Ferguson Problem.” The report calculated that over 4.2 million Californians had their licenses suspended— and never reinstated — for failing to pay court debt from 2006-2013.

When debtors miss an initial deadline to pay up or appear in court they’re assessed an additional $300. Some courts don’t let debtors contest their tickets until they pay in full, the report found.

As in other states, the findings snapped policymakers into action. The Judicial Council created an emergency rule to make sure drivers could contest unpaid tickets, and Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown added a one-time traffic ticket amnesty program to his budget.

It’s understandable that California courts would balk at potentially losing millions of dollars in collections, particularly considering deep state cuts to judiciary funding during the Great Recession, Herald said. But he contends that much of the promised money is fictitious. “Our clients don’t have the money” to pay their debts, he said.

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