06 Aug Driving While Poor
By Karren Lane
“I got a $340 speeding ticket when I was 17 years old, and it spiraled into $7,000 in fines and fees that I had to pay before I could get my license back,” says Edwin Rivas, a 26-year-old South Los Angeles resident.
For many, a traffic ticket is simply an expensive nuisance. But for thousands of L.A.’s working poor, an unpaid traffic ticket can escalate into a suspended license and much worse. Driving with a suspended license is a misdemeanor in California and carries significant penalties. A conviction can result in thousands of dollars in fines and court fees, points on your driving record and jail time.
Penalizing the Poor
“The vast majority of folks who get their license suspended are folks who simply cannot pay for traffic fines,” says Angela Chung, former L.A. County public defender and pro bono attorney. “For someone who makes $19,000 a year, the decision to pay a $300 traffic ticket is a decision to not feed your children or pay your rent.”
The cost of a traffic citation in California has risen dramatically over the last decade. A ticket for running a red light was $340 for California drivers in 2003 and is now $490. These rising costs are a strain on all drivers but present a significant burden on the working poor. A court will issue an arrest warrant and suspend a driver’s license for failure to pay a traffic ticket.
Rivas continued to drive and accumulate additional violations for driving with a suspended license, which creates an unbreakable cycle. “I kept driving because it would have been impossible for me to travel from South Los Angeles to work in Santa Monica and go to school in Pasadena in one day on public transportation,” says Rivas.
Cycles of Incarceration
Two or more convictions for driving with a suspended license require mandatory jail time. Even a short stay in county jail can completely disrupt a person’s life. “At age 16, I vowed I would never see another jail cell. And in a blink of an eye, I was back in a place I never wanted to be again,” Rivas says, describing the four days he spent in county jail for driving with a suspended license. “I was away from my family, my children were waiting for me to come home for four days and I could have lost my job.”
Many states have examined whether excessive penalties for driving with a suspended license have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. A study in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, found that 90% of the African American men in Wisconsin’s prisons did not have a valid driver’s license.
In a recent poll of 4,000 South L.A. voters, 18% reported having their license suspended. Nearly half of those whose license was suspended reported being arrested for driving with a suspended license.
Clogging the System
Suspended license offenses make up a significant number of misdemeanor cases across the nation. Community expungement clinics and the L.A. County Public Defender at the Metropolitan Courthouse in downtown L.A. report suspended license cases make up about 30% of their cases. They consume significant court resources and clog up a court system already hampered by layoffs and closures statewide.
Community Coalition is exploring how to save millions of dollars in wasted resources and relieve thousands of people from the expense, stigma and exclusions that follow such convictions.
Miami-Dade County saved the local criminal justice system nearly one million dollars in one year and generated revenue by diverting individuals arrested for driving with a suspended license from the court system and into a pilot re-licensing program. Participants in the program are allowed to pay off fines, court fees and program costs through community service or payment programs. Participation in the program also removes outstanding fines from collections and withholds a percentage of points from being placed on a person’s license.
Public Safety Realignment, a California law that shifts responsibility and resources from the state prison system to local law enforcement, encourages counties to invest in innovative strategies that save public dollars and improve safety.
“A diversion program in Los Angeles could save tax payers millions that can be used to handle serious crimes that threaten public safety,” says Chung.
Lane is director of the Prevention Network at Community Coalition.