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Traffic fines fund courts, prey on poor

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, has introduced a bill, SB 405, that he says would fix California’s broken traffic fine system.
State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, has introduced a bill, SB 405, that he says would fix California’s broken traffic fine system. Fresno Bee File Photo

Whether it’s a broken taillight or late car registration, we all know the deal: pay up. Monetary penalties are embedded in our system of justice.

But we’re not telling the truth about fines and penalties. In California; Ferguson, Missouri; and across America, penalties are no longer deterrents, but a primary source of government funding.

The justice system is heavily reliant on fees, penalties and assessments, levied primarily on the poor — the very people who can least afford it. As a state senator, I have learned of far too many cases where financial hardship makes it difficult to pay up for petty offenses. Before you know it, a $25 ticket for failing to notify the DMV of an address change has ballooned to $2,900 due to absurd math that multiplies fees and penalties — not unlike the debt owed to a loan shark.

Today, the uncollected bill in California for unpaid court-ordered fines amounts to $10 billion. The courts compound the problem by suspending driver’s licenses for those who fail to pay. More than 4.2 million licenses have been suspended since 2006, mostly for non-safety-related tickets. With one recent study showing 42% of those who lost their licenses also lost their jobs, and 88% lost income, we’re stuck in a system that doesn’t make any sense. It’s designed to collect money, but it doesn’t. It’s supposed to be about justice, but it’s not.

We need to take several steps to fix this broken system.

First, we need to pay off the $10 billion in uncollected debt that accrued over the last few years. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a 50% reduction in fines accrued prior to 2013, but that doesn’t go far enough.

That’s why I introduced Senate Bill 405, which bases those penalties on ability to pay, so we can distinguish between the unwilling and the unable. Either way, everyone can pay off his or her debt and get a fresh start.

Second, we must restore licenses to Californians with non-safety violations. If you can’t drive, you can’t work, and you can’t pay. That’s the key to SB 405, and the goal is to give people their lives and livelihoods back.

The last step is to fix the justice and court budgets, so we’re not funding them on the backs of the working and the poor. This is a conversation I intend to have over the next few years.

Some critics oppose anything that smacks of a pardon for the poor. But that logic ignores the realities of life in some neighborhoods.

Consider Edwin Rivas, an 18-year-old in Los Angeles whose father died of pancreatic cancer and mother was working as a housekeeper. The first in his family to attend college, Edwin couldn’t afford a $350 speeding ticket. So he ignored it and another one that followed, and continued to drive to school and his job helping troubled youth. After his license was suspended, the penalties and fees totaled $7,000.

A job promotion — and the extra driving it required — forced Rivas, now 26, to come clean to his employer. And his employer, a nonprofit agency, did a wonderful thing. It advanced him $7,000 in wages so he could take care of the penalty and get his license back.

“I drove for five years looking in the rear-view mirror,” Rivas says. “My heart would beat faster every time I saw a police officer. ... That was no way to live. You can’t believe the peace of mind I now have.”

That peace of mind, that fresh start, is something that all Californians, caught in the same dilemma, deserve.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, represents the 18th Senate District. He wrote this for The Sacramento Bee.

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