High levels of fines and fees imposed by traffic courts have become a major strain on low-income drivers in California. In 2020, Californians had $8.6 billion in delinquent court debt, imposing potentially disastrous economic consequences. These impacts fall disproportionately on people of color, who are both more likely to be low-income and more likely to be given traffic citations than white drivers.
To provide relief to low-income drivers, California has been working to expand the ability-to-pay (AtP) system for traffic courts. California’s AtP system allows drivers experiencing financial hardship to request a reduction in their traffic fine by submitting a petition to the court in person or by mail. To expand access to this option, the Judicial Council of California created MyCitations, which allows drivers to submit AtP petitions online. With MyCitations, drivers can request and receive an adjusted fine or payment plan with ease. However, use of the MyCitations system remains low.
What can be done to both reduce the inequity in court debt and make traffic fines and fees more affordable? Working with the Judicial Council of California, we set out to address the behavioral aspects of this challenge.
It was clear from our conversations with drivers across the four pilot counties—Shasta, San Francisco, Tulare, and Ventura—that while users had largely positive views of MyCitations, there were a number of behavioral barriers that prevented them from accessing the platform to resolve their citations. Understanding these barriers was integral to our work designing effective solutions that make fines and fees more equitable and affordable for Californians.
First, we looked for barriers that made it difficult for drivers to learn about MyCitations and use it before their fine due date. We expected to hear that drivers didn’t notice MyCitations on court notices or didn’t understand what the system was. As court staff themselves told us, MyCitations is often confusingly described in official notices or buried in text about the many other options for resolving citations. But drivers cited other reasons:
- Drivers’ expectations about how to resolve a traffic ticket can lead them to overlook MyCitations as an option. Many drivers believe they need to go to court in person and appeal directly to court staff to request a lower fine, and do not look for other options. Additionally, based on their previous experiences with the court or stories from others, drivers may not expect the court to help them and therefore may not look for options like MyCitations.
- Drivers experiencing financial hardship may wait to pay their fines so they can manage their cash flow but end up missing crucial deadlines. Some drivers procrastinated on taking action on their tickets; they anticipated that the process would be unpleasant or they were stopped by hassles, like a long drive to get to court. But we also heard that some drivers intentionally delayed acting on their ticket because of cash flow challenges; they needed to pay an immediate bill or debt and wait until payday or a benefits payment to have the funds to make a payment on their fine. Needing to coordinate payment on multiple obligations, like rent and utilities, puts drivers at greater risk of not attending to their citation amidst other urgent financial challenges.
When we asked MyCitations users about their experience using the system, we heard that for some, the reduced fine was affordable, and they were able to quickly pay it off. Others struggled to make payments. Affordability remains an issue for some drivers, and additional behavioral barriers can get in the way of drivers paying off their reduced fine:
- The adjusted fine may still cause financial hardship, especially when additional fees are added in. Drivers who need to prioritize providing necessities for themselves or their families over paying court debt still need to do so even with a reduced fine. Drivers may also incur additional fees to set up a payment plan or even to pay their reduced fine online, which can add up and make the reduced fine unaffordable. While many drivers interviewed felt that the adjustment they received was affordable, only one of eight drivers on a payment plan said that the traffic court debt wasn’t causing additional financial hardship.
- Drivers who cannot afford to pay outright and find themselves on a payment plan that can stretch over many months or years may lose the motivation to pay because the fine still seems impossible to afford or never-ending. Throughout the process, the cognitive burdens caused by the day-to-day stresses and challenges of living with financial hardship make it difficult for drivers to focus on making consistent payments. At the same time, drivers may not try to request a different arrangement because they do not believe that the court will help them. Drivers may also feel the way to adjust their arrangement is ambiguous or hassle-filled.
With deeper insights into the barriers and realities drivers experience, we set out to design solutions that help more drivers faced with excessive traffic debt access the court to request an AtP determination. Stay tuned for the release of our full report later this week, where we dive into some of the potential solutions to address these barriers. These solutions could serve as an important model for other jurisdictions to reduce the outsized burden of unaffordable fines and fees that disproportionately fall on people of color and other low-income drivers.