Yesterday an article appeared in Metnews about, in our opinion, one of the dumbest ideas of the year. The idea is that the judicial branch would collect a commission of up to 25% for collecting on uncollected fees, fines, forfeitures and other court ordered debts.
Our courts are not staffed to be debt collectors. The legislature and the Judicial Council have already transformed our traffic courts into glorified tax collectors where a 35 dollar penalty balloons to nearly three hundred dollars. If a respondent cannot afford to pay and acts like any other debtor that can’t afford to pay by keeping their nose to the grindstone and trying to eek out a living in this overpriced state, we punish them by more than doubling that ballooning penalty with a civil assessment.
Since insanity amounts to doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, many of our courts turn to collection agencies and turn over a huge chunk of cash to collect these debts. Many turn it over to collections shortly after imposing the onerous civil assessments. Unlike other collections, these collection agencies do virtually nothing other than send out dunning letters to respondents reminding them of the debt and how they might only be able to reinstate their legal privilege to drive to work only after they have paid the debt. After all, it is the clearing of any warrants and the restoration of the driving privilege itself that turns out to be the biggest possible stick in the collection arsenal for any court and it is one that trumps every other uncollectable debt that any respondent might have including taxes.
In the simplest of terms, most court debt moves to the front of the line right behind rent, food, childcare and costs incurred to work, well ahead of any other debt a respondent might have because people don’t want to be arrested or caught driving on a suspended driving privilege.
In a previous thread, “Jimmy” suggested that some of these tickets are a weeks pay for most folks. The fact of the matter is many of those tickets are greater than a months pay for many of these folks when you factor in the following:
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 23.8% or more than 9 million people are impoverished here in California making us number one in the nation using alternative modeling that includes items like the cost of living in the golden state. Many of those impoverished people owe much of that $10,200,000,000 in debt and no matter how hard you squeeze the turnip, it isn’t going to produce you any blood.
If the state legislature and the branch were actually serious about collecting the debt, JCW would recommend that LAO’s flawed recommendation be cast aside and that all of the following occur:
1. Pass legislation that automatically includes a payment plan for any citation whose face value is greater than two hundred dollars and does not cost a respondent another dime or any court appearance for the payment plan. Ensure the legislation requires one year of financing for every four hundred dollars of penalty and assessments and is nothing more than a check box on a courtesy notice. Email payment reminders can be made to respondents at no cost to the courts and snail mail reminders could be charged at 3 dollars per month to cover the actual billing costs.
2. Pass legislation eliminating the civil assessment penalty altogether and retroactively for those who have not already paid it. This will remove $300.00 – $350.00 instantly from respondents various citations. No one should be penalized for simply being poor and behaving predictably like any poor debtor.
3. Pass legislation that bans the use of private collection agencies altogether, thereby legally removing the bounties going to private collectors who already might possess uncollected court debt.
4. Substitute in place of the collection agencies the franchise tax board (the state income tax people) who have the ability to grab money from tax returns for bad court debt just like they currently do for unpaid parking tickets and to use the same paycheck garnishment power they exercise with respect to unpaid, overdue income taxes.
5. There are a variety of businesses out there today where you can pay your utility bills and they forward those payments on to the utilities for a small user fee. Many of these also happen to be in the check cashing business. These are the very places that the poor often go to cash their paychecks if they have no banking ability – and many of the impoverished cannot afford to maintain bank accounts. Any alternative location where you can pay a bill, such as a check cashing outlet or even Walmart, should be open to taking official payments on behalf of the courts in exchange for a very small processing fee equal to the lowest utility payment fees. Legislation should be passed that would make it substantially easier for the poor to make these payments in the very places they already do business.
and finally, number six…..
6. Pass a law that requires every imposed assessment to be itemized in the code for the actual code being charged. We believe this to be a fundamental due process issue because respondents are being assessed fees under various other codes without actually being charged with them. Legislators don’t pay attention to the fees because they’re not a part of the code they are modifying. The codes are so complex, it takes a full-time attorney in San Francisco to track them. What hope does Joe Citizen have of ever knowing how much hidden taxes are buried in that speeding ticket before he incurs it?
Recently, our governor rejected a 35 dollar fine because he indicated that such fees are regressive and disproportionately affect the poor. This position is reflected in that 10.2 billion dollars in hard to collect court costs, most of which are owed by more than 9 million impoverished Californians that can’t afford to pay them – and can’t afford to take a few days off work to explain that to a judge.
Added: Joe Citizen can look up what a ticket might cost here. http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/2014-JC-BAIL.pdf if he knows where to look. Funny you can’t find this on a site maintained by those who impose the fees.