The consequences of a traffic ticket can be life-altering for poor people and people of color. Unpaid traffic tickets have led to driver license suspensions, job loss, food insecurity, mental health issues, incarceration, and probation. Traffic tickets are just one of many fines, fees, and other costs charged to defendants at every level of the criminal justice process. Increasingly, fines and fees have become a source of revenue for state and local governments — and a heavy burden for people who are policed and incarcerated. Black and brown people are disproportionately harmed by these fines and fees because of over-policing and traffic stops made with ulterior motives. As a result, people of color and low-income people are more likely to accumulate court debt and to struggle the most to pay it. 

The parties responsible for the way fines and fees are assessed and imposed — courts, police departments, prosecutors, and public defenders — do not reflect the populations they serve. Although 40 percent of people living in the U.S. are people of color, less than 20 percent of state court judges — and less than ten percent in 16 states — are people of color. Among state trial court judges who preside over misdemeanor, traffic, and other low-level violations, 83 percent are white men and women. This lack of diversity on the bench is known as the Gavel Gap, and it permeates every level of our criminal legal system.     

This issue of representation is compounded by local governments’ overreliance on the courts and law enforcement to raise revenue through fines and fees, which cause disproportionate harm to communities of color. A Florida woman who spoke with the Fines and Fees Justice Center remarked that the courtroom was filled with Black and brown defendants every time she attended hearings for her unpaid traffic tickets. Volumes of research suggest that minorities are disproportionately targeted, ticketed, charged, and sentenced throughout the country. Black drivers, in particular, are more likely to be stopped, more likely to be ticketed, and more likely to receive multiple tickets than white drivers. 

A 2015 investigation into the Ferguson Police Department (FPD) by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed disproportionate rates of stops, citations, and arrests involving Black people as well as an alarming concentration of court debt within Black communities. The study cited the racial bias of police officers and court staff as partly to blame for the disparity.

Ferguson’s fines and fees problem is not unique. These dynamics are entrenched in virtually every U.S. municipality. Chicago is one of many major cities where aggressive ticketing disproportionately impacts the Black community. Eight of the ten Chicago zip codes with the most accumulated ticket debt per adult are majority Black. The effects of disproportionate policing and ticketing in New York City is just as disturbing. The driver license suspension rate in the ten zip codes with the largest concentrations of people of color is two-and-a-half times higher than in the zip codes with the largest concentrations of white people. In the rest of New York State, the disparity of driver license suspension rates is even worse. Outside the city, people are more likely to risk driving on a suspended license because there is no other way for them to get around, which can lead to a misdemeanor or felony charge in the state of New York. 

States need to adopt major reforms to ameliorate these inequality-producing, wealth-gouging practices. Local governments must commit to reevaluating how they fund basic government services since budget shortfalls often drive public officials to turn to fines and fees as a stopgap. This is the time to rethink what behavior should be criminalized and the role officers and court officials play, including their capacity and purpose. We have an obligation to both shrink our system and reallocate those resources in a way that benefits the communities that have long suffered under unjust policies. 

First, all court fees, such as docket and facilities fees, should be eliminated, and fines should be equitably imposed and enforced. In Florida, the state legislature created 20 new categories of fines and fees between 1996 and 2010. And Florida is not alone. Jurisdictions across the country have aggressively increased their fines and fees over the last twenty years. As local governments are seeing a sharp decline in tax revenues following COVID-19, the fiscal stress from the pandemic may lead to further reliance on fines and fees. Eliminating fees and making fines proportionate to a person’s financial circumstances will alleviate the economic burden on vulnerable communities. 

Second, state lawmakers should pass legislation to mandate the collection of data about police stops, ticketing, arrests, and court dispositions to understand the extent to which police officers and courts target, overpolice, and disproportionately punish people of color. If cities and towns lack the data to show that laws are being applied and enforced disproportionately, communities of color will continue to be overrepresented in police stops, tickets, and arrests, all of which cause undue financial hardship. 

Third, ability-to-pay determinations and payment plans should be instituted in all courts to prevent fines from becoming overly burdensome. Assessing a person’s ability to pay can involve evaluating if they live below the poverty line, calculating their net income, and then multiplying their net income by a standard percentage. Payment plans should also be offered on a regular basis, and courts should eliminate financial barriers like large down payments that prevent people from getting on a payment plan. 

Lastly, because police stops and traffic tickets create a vicious cycle of court debt and court appearances for many people, legislation to end the practice of debt-based driver license suspensions should be passed in every state. For those who live paycheck to paycheck, even one traffic ticket can lead to a license suspension. Eight U.S. states have recently passed laws ending the practice, but millions of drivers nationwide still face this consequence. To protect people’s ability to provide for their families, including transportation to school, work, and doctor’s appointments, this coercive and harmful practice must end. It does not increase a person’s ability to pay or likelihood that they will, and it creates significant barriers to everyday life.

Several California cities and counties have shown that eliminating fees and changing how fines are imposed not only can be done but can be acheived in a way that does not impact revenue collection. San Francisco’s Superior Court was the first in California to end debt-based driver license suspensions and suspensions for failure to appear. The county also eliminated county-imposed criminal justice fees and discharged $32.7 million of debt owed by about 21,000 people. The San Francisco Financial Justice Project, San Francisco Superior Court, and the California Judicial Council conducted research demonstrating that there was no negative impact on revenue collection as a result of this reform. San Francisco also reformed payment plans and instituted ability-to-pay determinations for parking tickets. Debt Free Justice California, a coalition of 70 plus organizations, has helped garner these wins by fostering effective communication and trust among partners, building consensus around goals, ensuring lobbyists bring the voice of the coalition to state legislators, and allowing impacted people to lead the work.    

Los Angeles recently passed landmark reforms which ended the assessment and collection of discretionary criminal legal fees. The motion also discharged outstanding debt and required the L.A. Board of Supervisors to report on their progress in discontinuing fee collection and reducing outstanding debt. Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors eliminated criminal justice administrative fees in 2019, and Contra Costa County put an indefinite moratorium on criminal justice administrative fees. In North Carolina, there is a statewide coalition aimed at abolishing court fees, eliminating financial barriers to fair adjudication, and enacting laws to ensure fines are imposed equitably. 

These reform efforts are encouraging but also indicate the work that still needs to be done. Current unjust fines and fees policies have been in place for decades; local governments have come to depend on these revenue sources, and many won’t take easily to change. Still, we must take action to mitigate the effects of a culture that disproportionately harms low-income people and communities of color. Though it may take time, fines and fees reform is an essential step toward ending racial capitalism.

 

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