FRESNO BEE EDITORIAL: Amnesty helps, but California fee trap still preys on the poor

California gives drivers a break with new amnesty program

October 7, 2015

Poorest will be able to pay fines, get driving privileges back


​With its pointless punitive cycle of fines and late fees, California’s traffic ticket system has long been a source of oppression for millions of motorists, burdening them with mounting debt they can’t pay and depriving them of the driving privileges they need to remain employed.

It’s a double-whammy that someone had to put the brakes on. Kudos to Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, for doing just that with an amnesty program that launched last week.

From now until March 31, 2017, drivers with tickets that were due on or before Jan. 1, 2013, will be allowed to pay them off at a discount. Everyone will get at least 50 percent off. The poorest Californians will get 80 percent off. The state will waive all penalties and allow people to pay in installments.

Most important, drivers who lost their licenses because they couldn’t afford to pay will be able to get their driving privileges reinstated immediately. And under a separate bill Brown signed into law, motorists can now fight their tickets in court before paying their fines.

That’s the good news.

The bad news — indeed, the tone-deaf news — is that anyone who takes part in the program still might have to pay a $50 court “amnesty fee.” And the Department of Motor Vehicles will levy another $55 fee for anyone who wants his or her license reinstated.

We suppose this is better than nothing, though.

As it stands now, more than 4 million Californians have lost their driving privileges because they weren’t able to pay a ticket, according to a report from the Western Center on Law and Poverty. Many of those same people are now trapped in a cycle of debt and poverty, which benefits neither the state nor anyone else.

It no wonder then that California — like Ferguson, Mo., the poster-child for padding its government budget with money from the poor — has come under such criticism from advocates for both the poor and minorities.

According to the Western Center report, California has over $10 billion in uncollected court-ordered debt and uses the heavy fines as a source of revenue. The state issues stiff fines for traffic infractions in the first place, and it then it tacks on ridiculous fees and assessments that can quadruple the original fine.

What’s more, many Californians aren’t even being punished for serious crimes. They are struggling to recover from moving violations, such as speeding, running a red light and failing to stop at a stop sign. Or even non-traffic infractions such as loitering, trespassing and littering.

The new amnesty program by no means solves all of these underlying problems. More drivers will undoubtedly fall victim to California’s fee trap. But for those already struggling make ends meet while also appeasing the DMV, this will be welcome reprieve.

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