A broken tail light is an annoyance, especially if you get a ticket for it. The cost of repairs and fines could require some belt-tightening, and skipping luxuries for a month or two.
But if you're a low-income person, and you can't afford to pay the ticket up front, fines start climbing fast, and can balloon into the thousands. Court fines for minor offenses like this can become major burdens for the poor, and punish them harshly.
If you get a ticket for drunk driving in Wisconsin, you can lose your license for nine months, poverty expert John Pawasarat of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, told NPR. But if you have an unpaid ticket for a minor driving offense like expired registration, you can lose your license for two years.
"It's an incredible policy," says Pawasarat. "It's a policy of punishing people who can't pay their fines."
These policies can create a spiral effect with major long-term consequences; Pawasarat told NPR that one of the biggest barriers to getting a job is not having a license.
"Two out of three African-American men in this neighborhood, of working age, don't have a driver's license," he said. "And are consequently unable to access the jobs that are beyond the bus lines."
Petty fines came into the spotlight when some St. Louis County towns, including Ferguson, Missouri, were found to have been penalizing poor residents with petty offenses that rake in millions of revenue for local governments.
Finances suggest that St. Louis suburb criminal justice systems have been exploiting residents, especially the poor, to boost income. Towns surrounding St. Louis County get 40 percent or more of their yearly revenue from these petty fines and fees that local lawyers have started calling "poverty violations." The majority are from traffic offenses, but also include fare-hopping on public transit and loud music, according to the Washington Post.
When citizens fail to pay the fees or fail to show up in court because they don't have the funds, those violations turn into arrest warrants, and people are stripped of licenses, and sometimes their livelihood.
For someone like McArthur Edwards, petty fines were the difference between being able to provide for his family and coming up short.
Edwards told NPR that in 2013, he was ticketed for a broken light over his license plate, and when he didn't pay the $64 fine, his license was taken away for two years. He kept driving, and tickets kept piling up.
The 29-year old father of four wants his license so that he can get higher-paying work outside his neighborhood, where most of the opportunities are minimum wage. He has a hard time making rent and paying electric bills.
About 56 percent of license suspensions in Wisconsin are because people can't pay fines for non-moving violations, which outnumber suspensions for drunk or reckless driving, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
This mirrors a nationwide trend: 40 percent of suspensions are for unpaid tickets or non-moving violations like getting caught with drugs, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicles Administrators.
Jim Gramling was a judge on Milwaukee's Municipal Court, and started the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability, a nonprofit that provides legal services to the poor. Since opening its doors in 2007, it has helped 3,000 people get their licenses.
"What we see constantly here at the center are drivers who have accumulated a series of tickets that are directly related to their lack of income," Gramling told NPR.
"People should pay their tickets. No doubt about it," said Gramling. "They should be held accountable for what they've done that violated the traffic laws. But at some point, a balance has to be introduced into this. And the balance is, if people don't pay because they're low-income and can't budget that expense, what's an appropriate penalty?"
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