California is expected to make changes to its civil assessments or what some call “hidden court fees” that can cause the cost of a traffic or minor citation to balloon. But so far, state officials have been disagreeing on how far to go.
Civil assessment fees are imposed on Californians as a penalty for failing to pay a ticket by a deadline or failing to appear in court on a charge. The majority of the fines are issued in traffic or infraction cases, according to Cal Matters. A fee can be tacked on each time a deadline is missed.
A $300 maximum fee can be added for violations as minor as jaywalking and on tickets that initially cost as little as $35, according to the Debt Free Justice California, a coalition of organizations, policy experts, and legal advocates “focused on putting a stop to the unfair ways the criminal legal system drains wealth from vulnerable communities.”
California has one of the highest penalty fees, which the coalition says, traps low-income residents in a cycle of debt with the courts, Cal Matters reports. The extra charges generate nearly $100 million annually and the courts keep more than half.
For example, during the fiscal year for 2020-2021, Riverside County collected $9.4 million in civil assessments and retained $6.9 million as revenue, according to a report published by the Debt Free Justice California coalition. This made up roughly 14 percent of the court’s annual revenue.
In their report, the coalition also provided an example of a San Lorenzo resident who is a CalWorks recipient and mother who could not afford to pay for traffic violations. She was charged late fees on traffic citations five times since 2009, bringing her debt to more than $1,500, about double the cost of the original ticket, Cal Matters reports. This made her ineligible for a driver’s license for 13 years, according to the coalition’s report.
“They were trying to take all of this money away from us, but we didn’t have any in the first place,” she said, according to the report.
Civil assessment fines disproportionately impact people of color, who are overrepresented in traffic stops compared to their share of the population, according to the coalition.
“In 2022, California should not be relying on antiquated, back-end, extreme penalties
that drive poor people of color into debt,” the coalition said in the report. “It is time to end civil assessments to advance racial and economic equity, use commonsense policies driven by data rather than 1990s biases, and end this clear conflict of interest.”
In January, advocates sued San Mateo County Superior Court for its practice of automatically charging the $300 maximum fees in all traffic cases with a missed deadline, Cal Matters reports.
In his January budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed splitting the civil assessment fee in half, to a maximum of $150, and spending $50 million to backfill court budgets. However, the proposal by some lawmakers and the Debt Free Justice coalition to cut fines entirely could cost twice as much, Cal Matters reports. Senate officials endorsed that proposal in their budget proposals last month, as they announced a $68 billion project budget surplus.
Newsom’s administration told lawmakers the civil assessment fee should be reduced but shouldn’t be eliminated in an effort to motivate defendants to come to court.
“We feel the 50 percent reduction strikes a balance of providing immediate fiscal relief for all Californians and also preserving the viability of the civil assessment being used as a tool to keep individuals accountable, to compel individuals to appear in court proceedings,” Mark Jimenez, principal program budget analyst at the Department of Finance, told a Senate budget subcommittee in February, according to Cal Matters. He added that the fees are an alternative to issuing warrants to demand attendance.
But some senators disagree that fees are effective motivators for those too poor to pay traffic tickets in the first place.
“If they don’t have the money … how is that any incentive to come in?” Senator Dave Cortese, a Democrat representing San Jose, told Cal Matters. “You either have it or you don’t.”
Also in their report, the coalition surveyed 200 Californians with recent traffic citations in which 73 percent of people said they did not know they would be issued a late fee for failing to appear in court or pay a ticket, according to Cal Matters. Thirty-eight percent of people said extra fines would not have helped them to make a timely payment.
Many advocates recommended that courts should send out text messages to remind people about their payments and court dates, which they said would be more effective.
The coalition said it hopes Newsom will support chopping the fees entirely when he reveals his revised budget proposal this week, Cal Matters reports.
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