A $12 increase in a traffic fine may not seem like much, but when a local judge added up all of the additional fines, he showed how the system can take hours off poor peoples lives.
A $12 increase in a traffic fine may not seem like much, but when a local judge added up all of the additional fines and demonstrated how a person gets processed through the system, he showed how courts disproportionately demand hours and money from poor people. Ernest R. Prim/Shutterstock

Earlier this week, the Washington State Supreme Court ordered a $12 increase in the maximum fine for most traffic violations. They did this despite being warned that such a policy would have a disproportionate effect on poor people and people of color.

Here's why that'll happen:

People of color are often disproportionately cited for traffic violations. In 2012, a Washington State task force on race and criminal justice found that minority drivers are cited more frequently and charged with more serious offenses than white drivers. Another Seattle Times report from 2000 found that black drivers in the city had twice the risk of getting a ticket over white drivers.

Increasing traffic fines means making it more difficult for poor people to be able to pay these tickets. And failing to pay or show up in court can leave people with a misdemeanor and, eventually, a suspended license. (One of the most common cases processed by misdemeanor courts is a "driving with a suspended license" charge. The vast majority of these charges are pressed when a person fails to pay a traffic ticket or show up in court, and the people who end up with them are disproportionately poor and/or not white.)

There are more examples of people of color getting excessively cited for traffic violations in other states and cities. The second-largest source of income for the city of Ferguson, Missouri, for example, is court fines and fees—most of which come from misdemeanors and traffic violations largely shouldered by black residents and the poor. You see where this goes.

On Wednesday, a source leaked The Stranger an e-mail about all this written by Judge Ronald Kessler of the King County Superior Court. It had been sent to all King County Superior Court judges, as well as one member of the state supreme court. In the e-mail, Kessler walks through what would happen to someone tagged with a broken license plate light under the new, increased fine.

Adding up all the base-rate fines and additional assessments (more fines tacked on to regular fines), that's a $100 penalty just for having a broken license plate light. If you don't have $100 handy to pay off your fine, you have to work it off—six hours of picking up paper or working at a food bank. And that doesn't take into account the "time spent in court asking for work crew or community restitution," Kessler added.

("Or the respondent takes five minutes to write a check while standing in line at Starbucks awaiting a latte," Kessler wrote. "Or the respondent goes online and pays it with a Visa, earning frequent flyer miles.")

So here it is, from a judge's keyboard, how the criminal justice system is stripping hours off of some people's lives, but not well-paid white people's lives. The process, as you can see, is totally insane:

A driver is cited for defective license plate light, RCW 46.37.050 (a classic Driving While Black infraction, but that's, perhaps, another issue). RCW 46.63.110(3) tells the supreme court to set monetary penalties for infractions. IRLJ 6.2(d) declares the penalty to be $42. RCW 46.63.110(7) adds $17[1]. RCW 46.63.110(8) adds $20[2]. The penalty plus penalties is $79. Then there's the 70% public safety and education assessment, RCW 3.62.090(1), and another 50% public safety and education assessment, RCW 3.62.090(2). The penalty plus assessments is even more; I plead the lawyer/judge arithmetic/math dysfunction, so let’s round it off at $100.

Assume that all of this can be worked off in work crew or community restitution. Assume it happened in Seattle and the respondent can work it off at $15 per hour, and round it down. That's six hours picking up paper (work crew) or helping out at a food bank (community restitution), not including the time spent in court asking for work crew or community restitution. Or the respondent takes five minutes to write a check while standing in line at Starbucks awaiting a latte. Or the respondent goes online and pays it with a Visa, earning frequent flyer miles.
The District and Municipal Court Judges Association has regularly deplored the use of penalties and assessments to fund court programs but then supported them because we need the money. The Superior Court Judges Association deplores the idea of increasing fines, but then supports it because we need the money.
Where does it say that fines need to keep up with the rate of inflation?[3] Is $12 more going to make for better citizens, or is it certain to impose a greater burden on the poor whether they pay or work it off?
[1] "Under no circumstances shall this fee be reduced or waived."
[2] "The court may not reduce, waive, or suspend the additional penalty unless the court finds the offender to be indigent. If a court authorized community restitution program for offenders is available in the jurisdiction, the court shall allow offenders to offset all or a part of the penalty due under this subsection (8) by participation in the court authorized community restitution program."

[3] The $10 per day we pay jurors was set in 1959.

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"What's ironic is that a part of the motivation [of the supreme court raising traffic fines] is to have more funding available for public defense," Doug Honig, communications director for ACLU of Washington, said. "And what this does is take people who are already judged to be indigent, or some of the people in need of public defense, and attacks them further to provide public defense for them. Assuming they can even pay, which is questionable."

The court could reverse the decision, but otherwise the new fine goes into effect in July.

This post has been updated.