Governor Brown, a Democrat, came to see his state’s traffic-ticket system as an iteration of the same problem. Two months after the Ferguson report’s release, he referred to the financial precariousness of low-income Californians with ticket debt as a “hellhole of desperation.” Brown’s comment echoed existent concerns about the system: that even with billions evidently uncollected, the government was profiting off its more financially vulnerable residents, just as a different government had just outside St. Louis.
But even opponents of the new legislation who are sympathetic to the systemic problems balk at the potential loss of revenue. That loss fuels one of the more common arguments against decreasing fines and sanctions: California’s already cash-strapped court system will buckle without this source of income, and other government programs where the money is funneled will hurt, too.
Perhaps unexpectedly, state officials have been frank about how crucial fines are to government operations. When the Senate bill was introduced in January, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said that she worried it would impede the courts’ ability to collect about $2 billion annually: “Sixty percent or over goes to state and local government programs—all worthy programs.” In California, 16 of them receive financing from the State Penalty Fund, the largest of the state’s coffers that siphon revenue from criminal fines and fees, according to a recent report by the state Legislative Analyst Office. They include rape crisis centers, certification courses for police officers, and traumatic brain-injury rehabilitation services. This coming fiscal year, a total of $94 million is expected to be deposited into the fund. Representatives contacted for specific programs, some of which are overseen by local police departments, could not be reached for comment.
Law-enforcement agencies echo Cantil-Sakauye’s concerns. Designing an appropriate punishment should involve both the need for accountability and the “critical programs that rely on those resources to exist,” Ed Medrano, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, wrote in a statement.
Under current law, it is not mandatory for California courts to suspend driver’s licenses as an incentive to pay—and a punishment for failure to do so. Recently, a few have voluntarily ceased the practice citing the effect on low-income residents. The first was San Francisco County Superior Court in November 2015. Yet removing the penalty does appear to have taken a toll on the court’s traffic collections, and thus the State Penalty Fund. The court collected 23 percent less from July to December 2016 than it did during the same period a year earlier, according to information provided by the court.
The law’s supporters, like the Brennan Center’s Eisen, say efficiency at generating revenue is beside the point. “From a public-policy standpoint it’s unjust,” she said. “What we’re doing is criminalizing poverty.” Yet LCCR’s report suggests there may be an economic argument to be made for the Senate’s bill. It alleges the state may be able to collect more money when people are charged amounts that they can reasonably handle. Its analysis of all court-ordered collections during California’s two-year amnesty period under Brown showed low-income residents on payment plans scaled to household income paid their dues at rates 2.5 times higher than people who were mandated to pay a flat fee. There was a two-fold effect: As of December, the most recent numbers available, over 200,000 Californians had regained driving privileges, and the state collected over $35.5 million.