Calling California's traffic court system a "hellhole of desperation" for the poor, Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing an amnesty program for residents who can't afford to pay off spiraling fines and penalties that have resulted in 4.8 million driver's license suspensions since 2006.
The push by the Democratic governor spotlights concern among lawmakers and court administrators that California's justice system is profiting off minorities and low-income residents. It's a civil rights issue that has prompted discussions between the Brown administration and the U.S. Department of Justice, according to the governor's spokesman, Evan Westrup.
It's not clear if the Justice Department has launched an inquiry into California's court system. The department did not return requests for comment. Westrup declined to provide details on the meetings with federal officials.
Under Brown's plan, drivers with lesser infractions would pay half of what they owe, and administrative fees would be slashed from $300 to $50.
Advocates for the poor have likened California's problem to the police and municipal court structure in Ferguson, Missouri, which was criticized by the Justice Department as a revenue-generating machine following last year's fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer.
"California has sadly become a pay-to-play court system," said Michael Herald, a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty who helped write a scathing report released last month by civil rights groups on how Californians are getting caught in a cycle of debt and having their driver's licenses suspended as a result of costly traffic tickets and court penalties.
Traffic fines have been skyrocketing in California and courts have grown reliant on fees as a result of budget cuts during the recession.
Twenty years ago, the fine for running a red light was $103. Today, it costs as much as $490 as the state has established add-on fees to support everything from court construction to emergency medical air transportation. The cost can jump to over $800 once a person fails to pay or misses a traffic court appearance.
Civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have found that some traffic courts routinely deny people a hearing unless they pay the amount owed up front. The debt also has to be paid off in order for their licenses to be reinstated.
"Everyone is entitled to their day in court and that includes the poor," said Christine Sun, associate director of ACLU of Northern California.
On Monday, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye directed the court system's policymaking body, the Judicial Council, to make clear that people do not have to pay off traffic court debts before they can get a hearing.
Since 2006, the state has suspended 4.8 million driver's licenses after motorists failed to pay or appear in court, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Of those, only about 83,000 licenses were reinstated.
Michael Armas, 31, of Oakland, said he has been unable to find a labor or construction job without his driver's license for the past year and a half because he hasn't paid minor citations such as driving while using a cellphone or an improperly displayed license plate. His tickets have spiraled into a $4,500 debt.
Armas, who is African-American and Portuguese, said he's caught in a no-win legal cycle that's hampering his efforts to win custody of his 11-year-old daughter.
"How do you expect to pay something when you have no job, and you can't get a job without your license?" Armas said.
Brown hopes to bring relief to the poor with the 18-month amnesty program that would start Oct. 1.
"It's a hellhole of desperation and I think this amnesty can be a very good thing to both bring in money, to give people a chance to kind of pay at a discount," Brown said last week.
Brown's proposal is similar to a bill by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, which would restore a license if the driver agrees to a debt payment program based on a sliding scale. The poorest would pay as little as 20 percent of the fine.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, sent letters Tuesday to the Judicial Council and a nonpartisan analyst for ideas on changing the court fee structure.