Governor’s Fines and Fees Approach in May Revise is Right Idea, Wrong Approach

Governor Newsom’s May Revise has set aside $300 million in much needed funds to alleviate $8.6 billion in uncollected traffic debt. Unfortunately, the current proposal in the May Revise is another traffic amnesty program, the third in less than a decade. While we appreciate that the Administration recognizes the significance of the problem, the proposed solution won’t fix the problem. Instead, the Legislature should waive the uncollectible debt and use the $300 million—and more—to repeal regressive fees which are at the root of the state’s traffic court debt problem. 

We’ve been here before. In both 2012 and 2017, California created traffic amnesty programs. Low-income Californians were invited to apply to have their traffic debt reduced. The programs were disastrously unsuccessful in reducing traffic court debt. The 2017 statewide program reduced only 1.7% of uncollected traffic debtleaving $2.57 billion in uncollectable debt hanging over the heads of low-income families, and even the Judicial Council concluded that the program was unsuccessful: “it is likely that future amnesty collection efforts would, like this 18-month amnesty program and the 2012 program before it, do little to change the overall landscape of outstanding court-ordered debt.”  

It’s time to stop balancing the budget on the backs of poor California families. California has the highest traffic fines and fees in the country. Traffic penalties remain high due to a system of regressive taxation – because the state tacked on dozens of unrelated add-on fees to raise revenue. Because traffic enforcement disproportionately affects and is often targeted at low-income people and communities of color, these nonsensical fees have remained untouched despite a decade of evidence—uncollected debt, wrecked credit, lost jobs, and fraught financial futures—that they don’t work. 

This system hurts California courts. While court funding is important, tying this funding to a system of regressive taxation from fines and fees is harming everyone. Traffic tickets and the revenue that flows from them have been declining for years.  It is time for the state and the courts to stop relying on revenue from traffic court to fund our judiciary. It puts judges in a conflict of interest between satisfying court needs for revenue and dispensing justice. 

The size of the solution is completely dwarfed by the magnitude of the problem. After years not addressing the real problem, California needs a solution to traffic debt which is commensurate to the need. If this proposal is approved by the Legislature, it will only be a short amount of time before the problem becomes even bigger and harder to solve.  

There are real solutions. After a decade of research and experience and legislative efforts on this topic, one thing has worked: repealing the excess fees. We call on the Legislature to waive uncollectable debt—not bureaucratic amnesty—and use part of the budget surplus to repeal fees and civil assessments. Let’s go big now and fix this problem once and for all. 

Back on the Road CA is a coalition of organizations and individuals from across the state, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, ACLU of Northern California, ACLU of Southern California, East Bay Community Law Center, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.