Most people assume that jail time is reserved for people who commit pretty serious crimes: theft, robbery, drug crimes, or worse. However, a new trend (or maybe just a newly-studied trend) is growing, where people who simply fail to pay fines associated with minor traffic violations are languishing in jail. This has disproportionately affected communities of color, and low-income neighborhoods, particularly in Louisiana and California.
Essentially, unpaid tickets lead to additional fines – late fees, failure to pay penalties, and the like. Failure to pay these can lead to suspension of a license – and if you are caught with driving while your license is suspended, this could lead to jail time. The issue is particularly stark in California, who uses traffic fines as a source of income, and whose finds are among the most expensive in the country. For example – running a red light starts at $100.00. If a person is unable to pay, late fees and other fines can result in a ticket cost of over $800.00. Worse still, sometimes some offences can result in a suspended license, even if they are not strictly traffic violations, like loitering or jaywalking.
In New Orleans, the problem is similar. One man received a ticket in 1989 and he was unable to pay the fee. He ended up missing the court dates and eventually that one ticket cost him $23,000.00. His license got suspended, so driving to work became a test of nerves – every trip could end with him in the back of a police car on the way to jail. The fact that he was black is a problem facing many blacks and Latinos across the country. Back in California, statistics show that drivers of color are far more likely to be pulled over than white drivers – leading to more tickets, more fines and more jail time by minorities.
Each state has attempted to address the situation. In California, a program ran that allowed low-income earners to pay fines in proportion to what they were earning, and allow people to pay incrementally, rather than in one lump sum. Unfortunately for California residents, this program expired last month, leaving a gap in the issue. In Louisiana, the state developed the Warrant Clinic in 2015, in conjunction with a non-profit charity. The clinic is run by Parish officials to help individuals who have outstanding warrants for failure to appear for minor offenses, and those people who have extortionate fines related to traffic offenses who cannot afford to pay. The demand is huge – more than 1,200 people showed up once. Usually, the debts are reduced in exchange for community service.
It is important to understand how a single offense can trap someone in a vicious cycle of poverty. A poor person is unable to pay their traffic fine. They get hit with late fees and fines. They do not appear in court. They get their license suspended. A warrant is issued. They cannot pass a criminal background check and cannot get employment. They are afraid to drive because of the risk of imprisonment. The Warrant Clinic is a good start, and California’s proportional system appeared effective. However, they are each facing a gap in the system and need to initiate statutory schemes to address the inequities. In Missouri, a law was passed to rectify these scenarios, which limited fines for minor traffic infractions, and eliminated charges when people failed to appear in court in connection to these violations. The law goes further by outright prohibiting jail time for minor traffic violations.
Judges, lawyers and non-profits understand how ineffectual the current system can be, and therefore, they should take the lead in developing solutions and working with legislators to create a more fair system, which deters people from violating traffic laws, but does not disproportionately punish them and lock them into a cyclical system of poverty and jail.