By Jeanne Kuang
California is set this year to make changes to what some call hidden court fees, hundreds of dollars often added to tickets and minor offenses that can almost increase their cost tenfold. But so far, state officials disagree on how far to go.
Known as the civil assessment, the tax is imposed on hundreds of thousands of Californians as a penalty for failing to pay a traffic ticket on time or failing to appear in court for a charge.
The vast majority of charges are issued in traffic or infraction cases. A fine can be imposed each time a deadline is exceeded.
A fine of up to $300 can be added for violations as minor as jaywalking and on tickets that originally cost as little as $35, according to Debt Free Justice California, a coalition of organizations, policy experts and legal advocates opposing the “unfair ways of the criminal justice system”. drains wealth from vulnerable communities.
California has one of the highest late fees in the country, according to the coalition. The group says the fees trap low-income Californians in a cycle of bloated debt with the courts.
Money raised from extra fees bolsters court coffers, leading lawyers to accuse the state of paying for its justice system by making those who can least afford it pay.
Fees generate close to $100 million annually, and the courts retain more than half.
In Riverside County, the fees the court system kept accounted for 14% of its budget, according to a report released 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 afford to pay for traffic violations. She has been charged late fees on traffic tickets five times since 2009, amounting to more than $1,500 in debt, about double the cost of the original tickets.
This made her ineligible for a driver’s license for 13 years, according to the report.
“They were trying to take all this money from us,” she said, “but we didn’t have any to begin with.”
Civil assessment costs are borne disproportionately by people of color, who are overrepresented in traffic stops relative to their share of the population, according to the report.
In January, attorneys sued San Mateo County Superior Court to challenge its practice of automatically charging the maximum fee of $300 in all traffic cases with a missed deadline.
Governor Gavin Newsom, in his January budget, proposed cutting fees in half, to a maximum of $150, and spending $50 million to fill court budgets.
The proposal by some lawmakers and the Debt Free Justice coalition to eliminate fees entirely could cost around double that. Senate leaders endorsed that plan in their budget proposals last month, announcing an unprecedented projected budget surplus of $68 billion.
The coalition said it hoped Newsom would back the complete elimination of fees when he unveils his revised budget proposal this week. HD Palmer, spokesman for Newsom’s Department of Finance, declined to comment.
The Judicial Council, which governs the court system, supported the change in civil assessments. In a 2017 report, a commission of court officials recommended limiting the use of civil assessments or letting fines be converted into community service.
“We are grateful for the efforts of the governor’s administration and the legislature to reform the system and provide the necessary replacement funding for the judiciary,” Martin Hoshino, executive 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 fines and court fees over the past two years, which advocates say disproportionately affected low-income defendants. The state repealed charges such as the cost of a public defender, drug testing, and probation and supervision services.
Newsom also signed a law last year that limits the state’s use of wage garnishments to collect those debts and another that expands a pilot program allowing Californians to ask the courts to reduce fines they don’t. can’t afford to pay.
Last year, a bill to eliminate civilian assessments passed the state Senate but was gutted in the Assembly. The Debt Free Justice Coalition said at the time that it could not convince Newsom to accept a deal to eliminate the fee.
His administration told lawmakers the fees should be reduced but remain to motivate defendants to show up in court.
“We believe the 50% reduction strikes a balance between providing immediate tax relief to all Californians and preserving the viability of the civil assessment used as a tool to hold individuals accountable, to compel individuals to appear in court,” Mark Jimenez, senior program budget analyst at the Treasury Department, told a Senate budget subcommittee in February.
Jimenez said the penalties are an alternative to issuing warrants to require a court appearance.
But senators weren’t convinced the fee was an effective incentive for those too poor to pay traffic tickets.
“If they don’t have the money… how is that an incentive to come?” said Sen. Dave Cortese, a Democrat representing San Jose. “You either have it or you don’t.”
The coalition surveyed 200 Californians with recent traffic citations for its report; 73% said they were unaware they would receive late fees for failure to appear or pay, and 38% said additional fees would not have resulted in timely payment.
Lawyers have suggested that text messages would be more effective in bringing defendants with demanding work schedules to court.
This article is part of the California Divide Project, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.
CalMatters is a nonprofit newsroom committed to explaining California politics and politics.