Drivers with fines and fees for traffic violations in California have a right to ask for relief, but the process can be time-consuming, requiring them to submit proof of economic hardship in court.
Not only that, but drivers able to pay in full have an easier option—paying online.
To make the process fairer and more efficient for everyone, the Judicial Council of California received a Price of Justice grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, with technical assistance provided by the Center for Court Innovation, to create an online “ability-to-pay” calculator. The calculator, currently being tested in select counties, allows people to ask for relief—such as a reduction the fine or a payment plan—without appearing in court.
Fines and fees can place a huge burden on drivers, with the price-tag often adding up quickly. While the base fine for running a stop sign in California is $35, the addition of fees balloons that number to $238 — a nearly seven-fold increase. Failure to pay or appear in court brings an additional civil penalty of $300 and may result in the suspension of a driver’s license. In California, driving without a license is a misdemeanor, punishable by incarceration. By January 2016, more than 600,000 drivers’ licenses had been suspended for unpaid court-ordered debt.
The ability-to-pay calculator was designed by Global Justice Solutions with input from a statewide working group. As part of the initial plan, the Judicial Council will pilot it in five counties, representing both urban and rural communities. The California State Legislature recently supported expanding the pilot to three more counties.
The online tool allows applicants to submit to a judge a request for:
- a reduction in their traffic fine,
- a payment plan,
- community service in lieu of a fine,
- more time to make payment.
The tool, which will eventually be available in multiple languages, also allows applicants to submit a plea, or download information from California’s food and nutritional benefits program.
“The Department of Justice grant was seed money and allowed us to get this project started and partner with five courts and bring on a vendor and make a prototype. When we started making progress, we were better able to advocate to the Legislature to expand the program and get longer-term funding for a total of eight courts,” says Martha Wright, a supervising analyst with the court system who helped manage the development of the calculator.
The Judicial Council hopes to eventually make the tool available to all of California’s 58 counties.
California is one of five states to receive $500,000 grants from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to develop innovative alternatives to fines and fees. The Center for Court Innovation—in partnership with the City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance, the National Association of Counties, and the Center for Family Policy and Practice—has provided advice and support along the way.
Watch a demo of how the ability-to-pay calculator works from the California Courts.