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“[I] can’t get a job because of these tickets. I have to pay my bills or I’d be out on the street, so I take paying my bills over tickets.” For Angela Dabney, a 40-year-old single mother of three who lives in Alabama, it started with one traffic ticket she couldn’t afford to pay. Now she has a suspended driver’s license, which in turn, she says, has made it difficult to get a job.
Jahmani Kinch, a 28-year-old college student from Long Island, says he was ticketed more than 10 years ago while driving a relative’s car, pulled over for not stopping at a stop sign, having a taillight out, and not having insurance. Unable to pay the original fine when he was 17, he says his license was suspended, which led to more tickets. He suspects he owes $3000 in fines and fees.
And the Washington Post reported about a 68-year-old Washington, DC, resident, Garry Scott, who says one ticket for not having a residential parking permit led to six tickets and added fees. A decade later, he says he owes the District $5000.
“There are many individuals who simply cannot afford to pay their outstanding debts,” Lucinda M. Babers, Washington, DC’s deputy mayor for operations and infrastructure, told the Washington Post earlier this summer, when the District announced an amnesty program that allows those with motor-vehicle tickets—from speeding to parking—to pay the original ticket fine without added late fees. In DC, unpaid tickets double after 30 days of nonpayment.
The DC mayor’s office earlier this week announced an extension of the amnesty program that began in June. The program, which was set to end on September 30, has been extended to December 31. For those who don’t make a payment before December 31, late penalties will return.
Since the onset of the pandemic, many cities have initiated similar programs that allow a driver to pay only the initial fine for an infraction and not the added late fees. The National League of Cities‘ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families says cities both large and small have sought ways to ease the burden on taxpayers, especially during the pandemic, while still bringing in needed revenue. Boston ran a yearlong ticket amnesty program for health-care workers who were ticketed while working during the height of the pandemic. That program ended in April. Wilmington, Delaware, held a one-month-long amnesty program for tickets issued between 2017 and 2019 that allowed drivers to pay only the original ticket fine. Buffalo, New York, initiated an amnesty program that ended on December 31, 2020, and waived late fees for parking tickets that were more than a year old, as well as providing amnesty for low-income residents with minor moving violations. In San Jose, California, where the San Jose Spotlight reported that residents owed a collective $25 million in parking fees, the city granted amnesty for delinquent fees for parking tickets that ended on December 31, 2020. And the Poughkeepsie Journal reported that the city ran a 90-day amnesty program that ended last month for drivers with unpaid parking tickets; the program waived all added late fees.
While Babers calls DC’s amnesty program “a clearance sale” for drivers, Priya Sarathy Jones of the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC) says amnesty programs are only a first step. The FFJC tracks how states ticket and fine citizens and seeks to end abusive collection practices. Jones, who is the FFJC’s national policy and campaigns director, says more cities should think outside of the box by creating programs like the one that rolled out in Phoenix earlier this year and one that is expected to launch in Chicago this fall.
In Phoenix, a new law wipes clean traffic debts that are 10 years old or older and clears license and tag renewal suspensions attached to those debts. And, for those with fines dating back more than a decade, individuals had until May 1 to pay 50 percent of their outstanding amount. “It’s a true forgiveness program. Our policy position is that all debts should be forgiven . . . at some point, these are uncollectible, you’re doing more harm than anything good,” says Jones of ticketing policies that fine and then continue to penalize.
Jones says the FFJC is also keeping an eye on two pilot programs being proposed in Chicago. One would cut in half the cost of the citations issued, and the other would offer debt relief. “We know that sometimes what we need is simply an opportunity to fix the mistake,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during a budget address in September, according to ProPublica, which has been reporting on the disproportionate ticketing of low-income, Black residents in the city. Lightfoot’s proposed reforms, which have not yet received the green light from the city council, focus on compliance tickets such as parking stickers required by the city or license-plate renewals. “Everyone will have one opportunity to fix their violation by simply buying the sticker they need and having their ticket forgiven,” Lightfoot said, according to ProPublica’s published report.
In the FFJC’s “Hall of Fame” is the state of Oregon’s recently passed bill that will put an end to the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for drivers with unpaid fines and fees. And, in Ohio, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) in December kicked off the Driver’s License Reinstatement Fee Debt Reduction and Amnesty Program, which will reduce or waive reinstatement fees for certain suspensions.
Conversely, in the FFJC’s “Hall of Shame” is New York City, where the NYPD is increasing the size of its ticket-writing Traffic Enforcement Division in an effort to “counter fiscal effects of the coronavirus crisis,” the FFJC writes.
Jones believes that most traditional ticketing amnesty programs are in truth an effort to collect money, including DC’s extension. “I think it is a mechanism for the DC government to figure out how to get more money in the door,” says Jones. “I think it’s a tactic to increase their collections.” According to reports, the current ticket amnesty program, DC’s third in the past 15 years, has been its most successful. More than 32,000 people have paid their overdue tickets, raising about $44 million in paid fines.
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