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Do Programs for the Poor Count if No One Knows About Them?

State lawmakers signed an amnesty program into law to help those struggling to pay off minor infractions. But it doesn’t advertise the program to the very people who it’s meant to help.

Last week, I was helping a friend clear up old non-traffic infractions that had been sent to collection. Over time, my friend had racked up a handful of minor infractions for things like smoking within 25 feet of a trolley station and not having a license for his/her dog as they walked on a Del Mar beach.

In researching ways to help, I stumbled across a state amnesty program signed into law last June for tickets like my friend’s, as well as traffic tickets. The program started Oct. 1, 2015, and ends March 31, 2017. The program offers discounts to people who meet an income threshold, and cuts down on administrative fees for those who’ve had their licenses suspended.

In proposing the program last May, Gov. Jerry Brown called the state’s infraction ticket system a “hellhole of desperation.”

Indeed, a San Francisco-based group, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, published a report last year documenting how traffic courts drive inequality in California. The report found that “over four million Californians do not have valid driver’s licenses because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and fees. These suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, further impeding their ability to pay their debt. They harm credit ratings … Ultimately they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome.”

Just before the amnesty program law passed last year, the state’s chief justice issued an emergency rule rule “that makes it clear that Californians do not have to pay for a traffic infraction before being able to appear in court.”

My friend’s story certainly illustrates how crippling the fines can be — this person had worked hard the past two years to rebuild from alcoholism, homelessness and indigence. Before any financial progress could be made with a new, good paying job, my friend’s wages were garnished by the Franchise Tax Board for “court-ordered debt.” In researching the situation so no further wages are lost, I stepped into that “hellhole of desperation.” Our courts outsource collection of fines to private corporations; for San Diego Superior and Traffic Court, this is a company called AllianceOne.

My friend authorized me as a representative, but you can’t get details about the delinquent infractions you are being dunned for on the phone; you have to travel to one or more courts with jurisdiction, during business hours Monday through Thursday, or Friday mornings. For my friend’s six alleged delinquent infractions, I had to drive to the Kearny Mesa, Vista and El Cajon courts to get information.

What followed was an unintuitive maze that forced me to chase after information in circles; court officials wouldn’t be able to find the infraction I was seeking to clear up; or I’d finally figure out the right courthouse where I needed to be only to discover that it was Friday afternoon and it wasn’t open. Once someone working at an AllianceOne counter flat out refused to help me until she was instructed to do so by a court supervisor.

The point is: Even when I was trying to do the right thing and resolve the issue, the system makes it nearly impossible.

I had the time, a car and a lifetime of dealing with bureaucracy to navigate this labyrinth. I truly feel for the many poor and working poor who are thrust into it.

The amnesty program? They sure don’t advertise it. I talked to several reps of the collection agency for our court system and visited two San Diego County Superior and traffic court locations, and didn’t hear nor see one word about it. I only became aware of it when I started searching the Internet about infraction tickets that were almost 20 years old. There are small notices on the California courts’ “Self-Help Traffic” webpages, but surprisingly, not on the page labeled “Payment of Fines.”

The profit-driven private collection agencies don’t have an incentive to tell people about the program, so it isn’t surprising that state Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a warning soon after it started. From CBS Los Angeles:

“Her office said some collectors are failing to notify people about California’s debt amnesty program, which allows low-income drivers with lesser infractions such as running a red light to pay as little as one fifth of what they owe from old fines.

“Harris, a Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate, said some debt collectors have told eligible people they don’t qualify for the program or have failed to update the Department of Motor Vehicles when people pay off their fines.”

Sadly, my experience shows this hasn’t changed, and we need to put pressure on our courts to ensure that this program is fully advertised, including requiring its profit-driven contractors for collection to inform everyone about its availability.

To their credit, many state lawmakers and the governor continually express a desire to address income inequality – and programs like amnesty for minor infractions is a good way to start. But experiences like my friend’s show that programs alone aren’t enough. Well-intentioned programs are meaningless if no one knows they exist or how to take advantage of them.

Martha Sullivan is a small business owner who lives and works in the Old Town-Midway area.  She volunteers with Women Occupy San Diego, dedicated to creating an equitable economic system and restoring government for and by the people.  

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