Courts: California traffic amnesty program helped thousands

Original article can be found in the Hastings Tribune

Written by JANIE HAR

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — State authorities reported Tuesday that tens of thousands of California drivers have had traffic fines and court fees reduced under an amnesty program pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown to help the poor.
More than 58,000 drivers benefited from cost reductions in the first three months of the 18-month program that started in October, according to the Judicial Council of California, the policymaking branch of the state court system.
The council estimates there are at least 3.3 million traffic tickets eligible for amnesty with tickets valued at $2.8 billion before any reductions. The council reports about 612,000 drivers currently have suspended licenses for failure to appear or failure to pay traffic tickets.

Amnesty advocates called Tuesday’s numbers a step in the right direction but say they expect many more to be helped after a state rollout that was strong overall but spotty in counties where applicants were given inaccurate information.
“There could be a better effort on the part of the courts to monitor these situations and even be out there doing some testing,” said Mike Herald, a legislative advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. He cited Los Angeles and San Diego as places with slow starts.
More states are looking for ways to help drivers burdened with suspended or revoked licenses due to costly tickets that ramp up with every missed deadline. When Brown announced the program last year, he called the traffic court system a “hellhole of desperation” for the poor.
Under the amnesty plan, drivers with lesser infractions pay either 50 or 80 percent of what they owe, depending on income. Some drivers are also able to apply for installment payments. Amnesty applies to certain unpaid traffic tickets and “failure to appear” court violations that were due by Jan. 1, 2013.
The Judicial Council reported Tuesday that courts had collected approximately $7.6 million through the amnesty program but spokeswoman Teresa Ruano could not provide the amount that was reduced, saying that courts were not required to track that information.
Dana Isaac, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, said their clients simply can’t come up with money for tickets that can top $500. Oftentimes, she said, it’s pay the ticket or pay for food and rent.
“And people wind up making the decision to provide for their families, which is reasonable,” Isaac said. “They just wind up in this mounting cycle of debt.”