California Traffic Debt: $10 Billion In Fines People Can’t Pay

California traffic debt comes from and causes a downward spiral for the poor; governor calls it a "hellhole of desperation"

May 24, 2015 at 12:27 PM ET

In the past nine years, California has suspended 4.8 million licenses of drivers who didn’t pay traffic fines or failed to appear in court. Many argue this is less a reflection of how bad California drivers are than an indication that the state is making money by fining those who can least afford to pay. Now California’s traffic debt problem is bad enough that Governor Jerry Brown is proposing an amnesty.

The cost of simply running a red light in California is more than four times what it was 20 years ago. Now it costs as much as $490 and can rise to $800.

It’s no wonder that California now has more than $10 billion in uncollected court-ordered debt, much of it from low-income people who cannot afford to pay, according to a report released last month by the Western Center on Law and Poverty. The fines have sent thousands into a downward spiral, the report said. People who have their license taken away often can’t find or keep work. And without work, they can’t pay their fines and get their licenses back.

The report also said that the fines disproportionately affect people of color. African-American people in San Diego and Sacramento were two to four times more likely to get pulled over for a traffic stop than whites. And in San Francisco, where African Americans are 6 percent of the population, 70 percent of people seeking a lawyer for a license suspension were black.

Calling the system a “hellhole of desperation” for the poor, Brown this week proposed an amnesty program for people who can’t afford the fines imposed on them. The program would cut those fines in half and reduce administrative fees from $300 to $50.

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