Losing a driver’s license for a jaywalking ticket? SVCF-funded report studies bias in traffic courts

Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California's Traffic Court System

Report: Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California's Traffic Court System

It’s an issue that many middle-class Californians will never experience – but for those who cannot afford to pay their traffic tickets, the implications can be devastating. The ripple effect of an unpaid traffic ticket frequently include the loss of a driver’s license, wage garnishment and jail time. And research shows that black and Latino drivers are more likely to experience these results than their white or Asian peers.

SVCF’s commitment to fairness and equity led us to support a study of this issue. We are pleased to announce that last week marked the release of Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic Court System, an important report funded by SVCF and completed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area.

From the press release issued by LCCR:

[Paying More for Being Poor] shows that Californians pay some of the highest fines and fees in the country – more than three times the national average for running a red light, for example. The high fines and fees create hardships for many middle-class Californians, but they can devastate the lives of Californians with lower incomes.

Because of over-policing in communities of color and racial profiling, African-American and Hispanic individuals are more likely to receive traffic tickets than white and Asian individuals and are far more likely to be cited for driving without a license without also being cited for an observable offense. But new Bay Area data also reveals that African-Americans are four to sixteen times more likely to be booked into county jail on a charge related to inability to pay a citation.

… “It’s unconscionable that California’s high fines and misguided policies effectively punish low-income people and people of color more harshly than their peers. An unpaid jaywalking ticket shouldn’t lead to the loss of a license or the loss of a job,” said Emmett D. Carson, CEO and president of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “We are proud to partner with LCCR on this report, and we hope to see legislation passed that will correct inequities in the state’s fines and fees system.”

The Paying More for Being Poor report already has garnered some media attention, including on NPR and in the L.A. Weekly.

SVCF will continue to advocate for reform to California laws that have created this inequitable system. Fortunately, there are numerous bills currently making their way through the California Legislature that would address problems documented in LCCR’s report. Among them are SB 185 (Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys), which would overhaul the court debt and license suspension system for indigent traffic defendants, and AB 412 (Ting, D-San Francisco), which seeks to stop courts from imposing $300 civil assessments (an extra penalty fine) on people who can’t afford to pay tickets in traffic court.

Read the Paying More for Being Poor report