by Jean Cuango , CalMaters
California is set to change some “hidden” court fees this year, with hundreds of dollars often dealing with traffic tickets and minor violations that can increase their cost by nearly tenfold. But so far, state officials disagree about how far to go.
Known as a civil assessment, the fee is imposed on hundreds of thousands of Californians as a fine for failing to pay a ticket by a deadline or for failing to appear in court on a charge.
Most charges are issued in cases of traffic or violations. Every time the deadline is missed, a fine may be imposed.
According to Debt Free Justice California, a coalition of organizations, policy experts, and legal advocates who oppose the “unfair way of the criminal legal system,” Debt Free Justice California, according to Debt Free Justice California, has a maximum of $300 for a minor violation such as jaywalking. Fines can be added and tickets originally cost as little as $35. Drains money from vulnerable communities. ,
The Coalition says California has the highest late fees in the country. The group says the fees trap low-income Californians in a cycle of mounting debt with the courts.
The money collected from the additional charges bolsters the court’s coffers, with leading advocates accusing the state of paying for its judicial system, which can least afford it.
The fees generate about $100 million a year, and the courts keep more than half.
In Riverside County, the fees the court system put in place amounted to 14% of its budget, according to a report published by the Coalition this year.
The report gave as an example a San Lorenzo resident who is a CalWorks recipient and a mother who could not pay for a traffic violation. Since 2009 they have been charged five times the late fee on traffic quotes, a debt of more than $1,500, almost twice the cost of the original tickets.
This made him ineligible for a driving license for 13 years, the report said.
“They were trying to take all this money away from us,” she said, “but we didn’t have any in the first place.”
The report noted that citizen assessment fees are disproportionately borne by people of color, who are over-represented in traffic stops compared to their share of the population.
Advocates sued San Mateo County Superior Court in January, challenging its practice of automatically charging a $300 maximum fee in all traffic cases with missed deadlines.
Governor Gavin Newsom proposed halving fees in his January budget, up to $150, and spending $50 million to back the court budget.
A proposal by some lawmakers and the Debt Free Justice Coalition to eliminate the fee altogether could almost double the cost. Senate leaders backed that plan in their budget proposals last month, as they announced an unprecedented $68 billion projected budget surplus.
too poor for tickets
The Coalition said it expects Newsom to support a complete abolition of fees when it unveils its revised budget proposal this week. Newsom’s finance department spokesman HD Palmer declined to comment.
The Judicial Council, which regulates the court system, has supported changes to the civic assessment. A 2017 report by a commission of court officials recommended limiting the use of civic assessments or converting fines to community service.
“We are grateful for the efforts of both the Governor’s Administration and the Legislature to improve the system and provide the necessary backfill funding for the Judicial Branch,” Martin Hoshino, Administrative Director of the Judicial Council, said in an email. “We support the governor’s proposal and are committed to working with him and legislative leaders in the coming weeks as they finalize the state budget.”
The proposals come after the state eliminated dozens of court fines and fees over the past two years, which advocates said disproportionately affected low-income criminal defendants. The state repealed charges such as being a public protector, drug testing, and the cost of probation and supervision services.
Newsom also signed a law last year that limits the use of state wage garnishments to pay back those loans and another that expanded a pilot program asking Californians to ask courts to reduce ticket fines. got permission which they cannot pay.
Last year, a bill to abolish civil assessment was passed in the state Senate but was rejected in the assembly. The Debt Free Justice Coalition said at the time that it could not agree to a settlement to eliminate charges to Newsom.
His administration told lawmakers that the fee should be reduced but prompted defendants to come to court.
“We think the 50% reduction will provide immediate financial relief for all Californians and preserve the viability of a citizen assessment being used as a tool to hold individuals accountable, allowing individuals to appear in court proceedings. balance,” Mark Jimenez, chief program budget analyst in the Department of Finance, told a Senate budget subcommittee in February.
Jimenez said the penalty is an alternative to the issuance of a warrant seeking court appearance.
But senators did not agree that the fees were an effective motivator for people who were too poor to pay traffic tickets.
“If they don’t have the money… how is there any incentive to get into it?” Dave Cortes, a Democrat who represents San Jose, said. “You either have it or you don’t have it.”
The Coalition surveyed 200 Californians with recent traffic citations for its report; 73% said they did not know they would be issued a late fee for failing to attend or pay, and 38% said the additional fee did not help them pay on time.
Advocates suggested that text messages with the defendant seeking an action program in court would be more effective.
this is part of the article California Divide Project, a collaboration between newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.