Recently, the Judicial Council conducted an “urgent open meeting” to approve a rule change allowing drivers to fight their traffic tickets without having to post bail first. The Chief Justice described the meeting as “historic” and characterized the Council’s action as ”an important first step to address an urgent access-to-justice issue.” The Council’s actions come in the wake of recent sharp criticisms from the ACLU of Northern California and a blistering report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and others.
The Alliance welcomes any move to bring a measure of sanity to the madness that pervades our system of traffic-related fines and fees, under which a $100 ticket can balloon into a $490 debt. Predictably, many people simply can’t afford to pay their bloated traffic fines. Those of us who work in mass arraignment courts are all too familiar with the cycle of unpaid fees, missed court appearances, bench warrants, and license suspensions. The Legislative Analyst’s Office has calculated that over $10 billion in court-ordered fines and fees has gone uncollected. According to the LCCR report, more than four million Californians have had their licenses suspended because of failures to appear or failures to pay. In the context of these oppressively high fines and fees, the Judicial Council’s latest move makes sense.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Our branch leadership, which is now applauding itself for its bold and decisive action, has been a big part of the problem for years.
Our leaders certainly can’t claim that they weren’t aware of the crisis in fines and fees, or of the unfairness of requiring people to pay in full before their trials. Vehicle Code, § 40519, the statute requiring bail to be posted before contesting a traffic ticket, has been on the books in one form or another for almost 50 years. Only now has the judicial branch leadership deemed the issue “urgent” enough for action.
So what has the branch leadership been doing about the situation up until now? They’ve been talking about the problem of fines and fees—and doing little else about it—for years. In characteristic fashion, the Council created a committee, the Court-Ordered Debt Task Force, back in 2011. According to its most recent agenda, this task force is supposed to “evaluate various aspects of the criminal and traffic-related court-ordered fees, fines, forfeitures, penalties.” But according to its website, it hasn’t done much of anything since 2013.
The Council also has a Traffic Advisory Committee. We’re not sure what it does. All of its many meetings, including those discussing the bail issue, have been closed to the public.
Our branch’s responsibility for the fine-and-fee morass extends beyond its inaction. We have to own up to the fact that our branch has lobbied hard for many of the fees and assessments that have caused traffic fines to swell to such grotesque proportions. The Judicial Council sponsored SB 1407, the bill that tacked a $35 assessment onto every infraction and a $5 penalty for every $10 of the base fine. The Council cosponsored SB 857, which raised the court operations assessment (Pen. Code, § 1465.8, subd. (a)) to $40. On a $100 traffic ticket fine, that’s an additional $125 that gets tacked on to fund the courts. Most of that money goes to the court construction program.
If the judiciary is going to fund its multi-billion-dollar courthouse construction campaign with money that comes disproportionately from the poor, it had better spend that money prudently. And it hasn’t. The AOC and the Council built a $4.7 million wooden courthouse in snow country, just to close it four years later. Under the terms of an “innovative” public-private partnership, they agreed to pay up to $62 million a year for 35 years for the Long Beach courthouse. They propose to spend over $500 million on the new San Diego courthouse. They have spent hundreds of millions building courthouses that now sit half-empty because of staffing cuts.
It’s time for an accounting. It’s time for the Legislature to authorize an audit of the construction program, just as they audited the rest of the AOC’s operations. That audit uncovered hundreds of millions of dollars in AOC spending that should have gone to fund the trial courts. We believe that an audit of the construction program would uncover even more.
Streamline the Council. Open the meetings. And audit the construction funds.
Directors, Alliance of California Judges