How Cities Quietly Prey on the Poor

June 14th 2015

The Justice Department's report on civil rights violations in Ferguson, Missouri found what many residents already knew: over policing, over ticketing and over fining has lead to an ongoing miscarriage of justice that disproportionately impacts poor residents. But it's not just Ferguson. Cities across America have increasingly come to rely on traffic citations, fees, and fines to finance city infrastructure. This practice has disastrous effects on the poor and actually makes it harder for people to escape poverty.


Minor ticketing disproportionately impacts the poor.

Police officers tend to spend more time in low-income neighborhoods and stop them more often, particularly for jaywalking. In Los Angeles, which is heavily car-based and has little public transportation in comparison to other cities of its size, poor people tend to be the ones who are actually walking. Plus, police aren't targeting the gentrified neighborhoods that have made themselves pedestrian friendly, instead, they focus on policing poor neighborhoods, including the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez recently wrote about a young student named Eduardo. Eduardo was rushing to catch a bus to his community college and was written a $197 ticket for jaywalking in downtown L.A., even though he crossed in a cross walk during the "walk signal." The officer who ticketed him informed him that once the walk signal starts to count down, you are jaywalking if you enter the crosswalk, even if you get to the other side before the countdown ends. Most people are unaware of this law, and police officers stake out busy intersections during peak traffic times and ticket hundreds of people for crossing the street during the walk signal when, presumably, it is still safe to do so.

The real issue is the relative financial impact on poor residents who can't afford to pay tickets. For Eduardo, who works two jobs and goes to college, $197 is his share of the rent for the small apartment he shares with the rest of his family. And although he's under a financial burden after getting ticketed, if he doesn't pay the ticket on time, it will increase every month until he does (some tickets in Los Angeles double every due date).

An inability to pay a ticket on time can lead to:

  • Increasing fines
  • Suspension of driver's license
  • Wage garnishment
  • An arrest warrant
  • Jail time (despite the fact that jailing someone for a debt is illegal and unconstitutional in the United States)

These are all severe, additional punishments that are levied only on those who can't afford the initial fine. Also, as Radley Balko pointed out, some cities tack other fees on tickets without voter input , making the cost of infractions balloon and also meaning citizens can be jailed for paying fees that aren't even written into law.

With these punishments, you can take someone who is barely making enough money to cover essentials and turn them into a person who is no longer a contributing member of the economy. In California, this escalation of ticketing has lead to one in six drivers having their licenses suspended. These fees have become so large and difficult for citizens to pay that it's left $10 billion in uncollected debt for suspended licenses in California, and has also prompted Governor Jerry Brown to propose a fix for "Traffic Debt" to help those who have unpaid tickets.

Some of the consequences can "destroy people economically by ruining their ability to get or keep a job," Mike Herald, legislative advocate for the Los Angeles-based Western Center on Law & Poverty, told the Los Angeles Times. "When you get 4 million people with suspended licenses, and they're not paying, I think we've got a systemic failure."

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