Courting Justice in California

Photo credit: iStock photo: aijohn784

by Jeremy Loudenback

Aside from robust voter turnout in last week’s city election, the most positive result of protests in Ferguson over policing practices may be attention to inequities in other parts of its criminal-justice system.

Shawn Semmler "Hands Up, Don't Shoot"
Shawn Semmler “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

Accounts by the Washington Post and last month’s Department of Justice report about Ferguson have called attention to the ways that law enforcement agencies—including the Ferguson Police Department—in St. Louis County have been tasked with generating revenue for the municipal court system, often at the expense of public safety. Numerous accounts have documented the way that overly harsh penalties for missed payments or court appearances have had devastating consequences for St. Louis County communities, including for many low-income and African-American residents.

A new report released last week suggests that California may not be so different from Ferguson. The civil rights group Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco says that municipal court practices in California are “chillingly similar” to the situation in Ferguson.

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco issues new report
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco issues new report

Escalating court fees and fines have cost more than four million state residents to lose their driver’s licenses because of a failure to appear in court or pay a citation, some of which have nothing to do with driving at all. Without a driver’s license, many Californians struggle to find and keep jobs, maintain good credit, and stay out of poverty.

The report points to the case of a cook named Sam to illustrate the plight of many low-income residents dangerously entangled in the court system. Because of his participation in a rehab program that required him to stay at a facility, Sam was unable to appear in court for two unpaid tickets. As a result, his license was suspended, and his job prospects suffered. Despite professional training as a chef, several restaurants have turned him down for employment because of the suspended license. Sam remains unemployed and on public assistance.

The situation of Sam and others is compounded by the fact that many municipalities have dealt with budget shortfalls in recent years. Agencies like the court system have raised their fees to cover costs, placing more pressure on low-income Californians to come up with the money. And law-enforcement agencies are increasingly charged with arresting and prosecuting residents for driving on suspended licenses, diverting law enforcement resources away from other public safety priorities.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights recommends that California curtail the use of license suspensions as a collection tool for citation-related debt and that the state makes sure that access to the courts and due process are not dependent on income, among other suggestions.

You can read the report here.


One thought on “Courting Justice in California

  1. This is a prime example of how, like with the “tragedy of the commons effect”, public administration cannot calculate: “tasked with generating revenue for the municipal court system” means obviously that they kill the cow instead of keeping it healthy and alive for milking, to use a well-known metaphor. Once you put a human behind bars or push them into insolvency, they for the longest time made a positive contribution to public coffers. Maybe you extract that ONE fine successfully, but not much later you start paying through your nose as the prison system and all other crime-related and dole-related systems are drains where money can be poured into incessantly. It would be much better to have a kind of probation officer handle these problems up front than “afterwards”, wouldn’t it? AND those “clients” would not feel mistreated but feel a certain solidarity with that community they grew up in.

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