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How Phoenix Is Helping Drivers Bogged Down By Fines Get Back On The Road

phoenix municipal court building
Christina Estes/KJZZ
file | staff
Phoenix Municipal Court building downtown.

The customer service center at the Phoenix Municipal Court is a busy place. Among the roughly 30 people in the waiting room today is Joshua Carra. He’s here to start paying the $2,200 he owes the city for various traffic violations. A bill he said he isn’t sure he can pay off right away.

"That’s a lot of money to just fork out right now," he said. 

Right now his license is suspended. In part because he hadn’t paid off some of those fines. And not having a valid license is a frustrating experience. "It’s horrible. I mean there’s a lot of jobs you can’t get because you don’t have a license," said Carra. "And Phoenix is a big place. Everything is spread out. It’s hard without transportation. You know you can’t rely on the bus system."

But Carra is hoping that will change today. He came to see if he qualifies for a new city program for people whose licenses have been suspended for failing to pay traffic citation fines. The new policy allows residents to get their licenses back as soon as they begin making monthly payments. In the past the city required people to pay their balances in full before reinstating a license.

"We’re not forgiving the amounts that they were found to be responsible for. They’re still paying those amounts. We’re just putting it within their reach in a sustainable way," explained Don Taylor, the chief presiding judge at the Phoenix Municipal Court.

Taylor played a large role in drafting this policy known officially as the Compliance Assistance Program. He said it’s for people who have missed payments for fines on civil traffic violations like speeding or illegally parking and puts them on a payment plan that fits within their ability to pay.

"What we’re really hoping to accomplish with this program is finding a way to help people be in compliance and sustain that compliance so that they don’t suffer the collateral consequences in the long term," Taylor added. 

The goal is to help the city reduce its roughly $283 million fine backlog and break what can be a vicious cycle of late fees and other penalties. Taylor explained the pattern he typically sees is someone gets a fine they can’t afford to pay, so their license gets suspended, leaving them without a reliable way to get to work. Rather than risk losing their job, many drive anyway. If they get caught that means even more fines, and now a criminal charge.

"We sat down and I wanted to really look at and make sure we were doing everything we can to make sure law enforcement is about public safety and not tax collection," said Phoenix city Councilwoman Kate Gallego. She explained lawmakers began considering this option last year as the national conversation was developing in Ferguson, Missouri, around punitive law enforcement practices. Gallego contended these extra fees disproportionately impact low income residents.

"There aren’t a lot of wealthy people getting fined for driving without insurance," she said. 

Sam Brook, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said this policy is part of a small but growing movement among lower courts across the country that are reforming their practices so that the poor are not disproportionately impacted.  

"What I’m hoping is that we’re at the beginning of a watershed moment, said Brook. "Where this is kind of sweeping across the country and we’re going to be seeing more and more reforms."

Brook added, what’s encouraging is this policy change was implemented without the threat of litigation.

"I would say in the last two years we’ve made more progress in this forum across the country than we have in the past several decades," he said. 

The compliance assistance program has been in place for about three weeks now. In that time, the city reports that more 1,000 people have signed up. Officials say if this program makes a measurable difference in this unpaid fine and license suspension cycle, they plan to expand the concept to other areas in the court system.

Carrie Jung Senior Field Correspondent, Education Desk Carrie Jung began her public radio career in Albuquerque, N.M., where she fell in love with the diverse cultural scene and unique political environment of the Southwest. Jung has been heard on KJZZ since 2013 when she served as a regular contributor to the Fronteras Desk from KUNM Albuquerque. She covered several major stories there including New Mexico's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and Albuquerque's failed voter initiative to ban late-term abortions. Jung has also contributed stories about environmental and Native American issues to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's The World, Al Jazeera America, WNYC's The Takeaway, and National Native News. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in marketing, both from Clemson University. When Jung isn't producing content for KJZZ she can usually be found buried beneath mounds of fabric and quilting supplies. She recently co-authored a book, "Sweet And Simple Sewing," with her mother and sister, who are fabric designers.