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Traffic Courts Are Driving Inequality in California

A disproportionate share of fees, fines, and license suspensions fall on blacks and Latinos.

For Prentiss Mayo, negative interactions with the criminal justice system are a part of life. The 34-year-old native of Oakland, California, who is black and homeless, has grown accustomed to run-ins with the law ending poorly.

“I’ve been beat up by the police, harassed,” Mayo told TakePart. “Normal stuff that a lot of people go through. But it shouldn’t be normal.”

Last September, Mayo left the train at Oakland’s Coliseum BART station, where he was meeting a friend who’d offered him a ride. Legally blind since he was assaulted and stabbed by a stranger in 2013, Mayo boarded an elevator for disabled transit riders to exit the station. When he reached ground level, police stopped him before he left the station and accused him of not paying because he hadn’t yet taken out his ticket to exit.

“I asked if they could help me sort through the papers in my pocket to find the ticket, but they told me they wouldn’t touch my stuff,” Mayo said. “Then they said, ‘If you go back in your pocket again, we’ll take you down.’ I was terrified.”

Mayo was hit with a $221 ticket for fare evasion. He was unemployed and surviving on social security checks, at the time, of roughly $800 a month, and the fine was unaffordable. In traffic court a month later, Mayo appeared before a judge to contest the fine and was denied. His failure to pay at the hearing tacked on a civil assessment fee of $300, leaving him with a bill that exceeded half his monthly income.

“The judge basically dismissed everything I was saying,” said Mayo. “He accused me of not being blind, saying, ‘You’re a good actor, but don’t you think you’ve carried on this charade long enough?’ I felt belittled—just small.” (The Superior Court of California in Alameda County did not respond to a request for comment.)

The story of Mayo’s escalating fine for a minor transit-related offense, and his inability to afford it, is commonplace in California. A study published Monday by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, a civil legal aid organization, and several partner organizations documents the extent of the problem and its disproportionate impact on black and Latino Californians.

In San Francisco, the report’s authors found, black people make up less than 6 percent of the city’s population yet account for 49 percent of arrests made for failure to pay a fine or appear in court. Civil fines left unpaid also disproportionately lead to the suspension of driver’s licenses for black and Latino Californians, according to the study, with the highest suspension rates concentrated in neighborhoods with high poverty rates and high percentages of black or Latino residents.

“Not only do we know that these fines and fees are harming people economically; we now also have really clear evidence that it’s highly disproportionately racially impactful.”

Mike Herald, Policy Advocate with Western Center on Law & Poverty

Read the full article here