- In California, as in other states, high levels of fines and fees imposed by traffic courts disproportionately penalize low-income drivers, saddling them with debt that they cannot afford to pay.
- To address this inequity, the Judicial Council of California is piloting MyCitations, an online system that allows drivers to request a reduced fine or alternative penalty without having to go to court.
- In anticipation of a statewide expansion, we conducted research to understand the barriers low-income drivers face when using the MyCitations system, and develop behaviorally-informed court materials and recommendations to ensure the system becomes a source of relief for low-income drivers throughout California.
In California, as in other states, excessive fines and fees imposed by traffic courts disproportionately penalize low-income drivers, saddling them with debt that they cannot afford to pay. The consequences of this debt for low-income drivers can be wide-ranging; drivers may experience negative health impacts stemming from increased stress, and strain ties with family and friends who are relied on for financial or emotional support. These impacts fall disproportionately on drivers of color, who are both more likely to be low-income and, due to increased racial profiling and policing, more likely to be given traffic citations than white drivers.
While comprehensive fine and fee reform is urgently needed, ability-to-pay systems, by which traffic courts reduce the fines and fees imposed based on a driver’s financial situation, can provide much-needed relief to low-income drivers.
To improve ability-to-pay access in California, the Judicial Council of California is piloting MyCitations, an online system that allows drivers to request a reduced fine or alternative penalty without having to go to court. In the first year of its pilot phase, the system has shown promise but challenges to impact at scale remain. While the response to MyCitations among users has been largely positive, there are barriers to awareness and access. The system also has yet to demonstrate that it can increase the number of people who resolve their debt once it is reduced.
In anticipation of MyCitations rolling out statewide, we partnered with the Judicial Council of California and the county courts piloting MyCitations to find opportunities to improve the system. Through our research, we found a range of behavioral barriers to learning about and using the system, as well as following through to resolve the debt.
In response to these insights, we redesigned some of the key communications that courts send to drivers with traffic tickets, highlighting MyCitations as an easy and beneficial way for drivers experiencing financial hardship to resolve their citations. We also redesigned the adjusted court order that informs MyCitations users about the court’s decision on their petition, making the recipient’s new obligation clear, providing easy-to-follow next steps, and using messaging to motivate action. To encourage more MyCitations users to stay on top of their payments, we created behaviorally-designed text message reminders and email thank-you statements.
Finally, because we heard that MyCitations was not consistently reducing fines to an affordable level for drivers facing significant financial hardship, we also recommended changes to the way the ability-to-pay system works to ensure that traffic fines and fees do not become an overwhelming or ongoing burden for those experiencing financial hardship. (These recommendations included many of those named by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which works to eliminate fees in the justice system and to ensure that fines are equitably imposed and enforced.)
For more on these solutions, see our report, Reducing Fines and Fees for Low-Income Drivers.
Integrating these changes and incorporating behavioral design into key materials are important steps toward making MyCitations an effective lever for fines and fees reform. The Judicial Council and select county traffic courts plan to pilot the new and redesigned communications, as California rolls out MyCitations to every jurisdiction in the state and expands its use to offer online adjudication of all types of infractions.
At scale across California, this system would serve over half a million people each year who receive traffic violations, and even more across all infraction types. With demonstrated impact, the improved MyCitations system and related materials could serve as an important model that other states can adopt to reduce the outsized burden of unaffordable fines and fees.
For more on this work, see our report, Reducing Fines and Fees for Low-Income Drivers.