Written by Malcolm Maclachlan, Daily Journal Staff Writer
Preliminary numbers from the Judicial Council show participation in a program that allows drivers to regain their licenses by paying reduced fines has dropped off significantly since April.
The agency battled this year with Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, and advocates for indigent drivers over SB 881, a bill that would have prevented people from losing their licenses over unpaid fines.
The Judicial Council has argued the amnesty program that kicked off on Oct. 1, 2015 has cut into already falling court revenues. Supporters of the program say much of the money collected would never have been paid otherwise.
The 40 counties that have reported numbers for the latest four-month period show a downward trend. Compared to the four months prior, 20 percent fewer people have had their licenses returned between May and August this year. Gross revenue from the program dropped 24 percent.
Jake Chatters, the court executive officer with Placer County Superior Court, said participation in his county peaked between December and February. After a brief uptick in June, he said there has been a steep dropoff ever since.
Hertzberg said this is typical of an amnesty program.
“As the deadline looms, you’ll see a bunch more come in,” he said.
The current program runs through the end of March 2017. It allows very low income drivers to pay off their fines at 20 cents on the dollar, and many others to pay half.
In total, it has collected around $20 million in gross revenues and helped 146,000 Californians regain their driver’s licenses.
But this is “a tiny fraction” of the number who have suspended licenses due to an inability to pay fines, said Elisa Della-Piana, legal director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, a backer of the amnesty program.
According to figures from the Judicial Council, that number was nearly 613,000 at the start of the program. But a 2015 report from The Lawyer’s Committee and other advocates estimated it topped 4 million.
But Della-Piana said she agrees with the courts on one key point. “We also think that funding for the courts should be increased and established so it does not rely on collecting money from California’s poorest residents,” she said.
Budget concerns helped the Judicial Council and the California Association of Counties weaken Hertzberg’s bill.
SB 881 was first amended to extend the current amnesty program by nine months. The final version signed by Gov. Jerry Brown imposed a 90-day time limit for courts to act on applications under the current program.
Hertzberg said he does not plan to bring back a license amnesty extension in 2017 but will introduce other legislation to help those who cannot afford to pay court fines or bail.
Last month, the Judicial Council received a $488,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to study the impact of criminal and traffic fines and fees. Over the next three years, the agency will create an ability-to-pay formula and test it in three counties.
The grant “is one more part of the work the Judicial Council is doing right now to ensure all Californians have access to justice regardless of their income,” said Shelley Curran, director of the Judicial Council’s Criminal Justice Court Services Office.