Criminal justice reformers target punitive traffic tickets

California reformers seeking sweeping changes in the state’s criminal justice system have a new target: burdensome traffic tickets.

The leading proponent of the proposal is California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. She is working on a plan to decriminalize minor traffic infractions by having them handled in civil court instead of criminal court.

Cantil-Sakauye told the Los Angeles Times that it is unacceptable that people who are too poor to pay tickets or who miss court hearings related to the tickets end up in jail or are unable to get to work, wreaking havoc in their lives.

But the change would also help the state court system by limiting how much time criminal courts spend on traffic cases. Reformers say that nearly three-quarters of criminal cases involve traffic tickets, more than 4 million of which are given out annually.

Poor seen as victimized by policies

The shift of such infractions as running a stop sign, illegal lane changes or speeding modestly (up to 15 mph over the limit) to civil courts would involve lowering the burden of proof from beyond a reasonable doubt to reasonable certainty – also a change that would save resources.

Momentum for the changes has built in recent weeks after the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area released a report showing unpaid traffic tickets took a heavy toll on the lives of poor Californians.

It noted that from 2006 to 2015, one-sixth of California adults – 4 million people – had their licenses suspended because of unpaid traffic tickets. It documented that nearly four out of five workers commuted in vehicles and argued that the punitive effects of Golden State traffic policies went far beyond reasonable punishments. That’s because while the fines for certain driving offenses are relatively low – $100 for running a red light – state lawmakers for years have added fees to the tickets to help fund state programs. The total ticket cost for running a red light is $490 in California, vastly higher than other states. The result of this approach is state drivers being assessed nearly $10 billion a year for their infractions.

The rationale that criminal penalties are disproportionately and unnecessarily harsh has driven the three other legal reform pushes seen in the state since 2014.

That year, California voters approved Proposition 47, championed by Gov. Jerry Brown. It made state sentencing policies less punitive by classifying many crimes considered “non-serious” and “non-violent” as misdemeanors instead of felonies, unless the defendant had criminal histories of major crimes.

In 2016, California voters approved Proposition 57, once again at Brown’s behest. It made it easier for felons to win parole if they have constructive records in prisons and also gave judges the decision-making authority on whether juvenile suspects should be prosecuted as adults, not prosecutors.

Dramatic changes in bail rules win Senate OK

In the current session of the state Legislature, lawmakers are considering perhaps the most far-reaching changes yet. Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, and state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, have each introduced bills that would end the state’s practice of requiring formally accused criminal suspects to pay heavy cash bail. They say there is strong evidence that governments with much less onerous bail policies than California – which has the harshest in the nation – have just as good a record of getting the accused to show up for trials.

Bonta’s and Hertzberg’s bills would yield sharp savings for local governments. That’s because a majority of inmates in county jails are there because they can’t pay bail or afford bail bondsmen who charge a 10 percent of bail fee to guarantee they will show up in court.

Hertzberg’s bill passed the Senate 26-11. But the Assembly is more skeptical. It recently rejected Bonta’s identical bill on a 35-37 vote.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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