REPORT: Hidden Court Civil Assessments Increasing Financial Burden on Poor in California

By Keana Sauray and Priana Aquino

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – This last week, The Debt Free Justice California Coalition released “Civil Assessments: The Hidden Court Fee that Penalizes Poverty,” suggesting court fees are an increasing burden on the poor.

The civil assessment is a $300 fee charged mostly in infraction cases (traffic and non-traffic). This can exponentially increase the amount someone owes, the report notes.

“For example, a $35 fine for running a stop sign increases over 8.5 times with the addition of a civil assessment,” states the report. “Court appearances are not required for most traffic tickets, so the fee simply charges people who can’t afford to pay.”

The report addresses the fact that civil assessments are a type of poverty penalty charged to people who miss a deadline to pay or appear in court.

“For the many who can’t afford to pay, civil assessments are a source of debt, instability, and anxiety,” states the report. “Households of color are twice as likely as white households to lack adequate income to meet their basic needs, 2 so traffic court debt is especially likely to undermine the financial stability of Black and Brown people.”

When surveying Californians, 86 percent were concerned about their ability to pay for food, 75 percent utilities, and 65 percent rent, when asked if civil assessments would interfere with their ability to pay for living expenses.

“The survey results speak powerfully to the problems and limitations of civil assessments. The survey shows that civil assessments are not acting as a deterrent: three out of four people did not even know the fees existed,” reports Debt Free Justice CA.

According to the report, every year, California courts process over 3.2 million infractions. Of these 3.2 million infractions, one county court estimates that one in three of these cases involves the $300 civil assessment.

Although this $300 hidden fee applies if someone does not appear in court or pay, the vast majority of these fees are applied in infraction and traffic cases, where the person is not required to appear in court.

Civil assessment debt can lead to aggressive collection tactics, and the people burdened by these $300 hidden fees may be pursued or harassed by private collection agencies, notes the report, adding “for many Californians, already living on the brink of poverty, such collection tactics can push people into financial instability or ruin.”

However, most Californians are refusing to even pay the hidden fee.

‘“Show me the person who reads the fine print and understands they’ll be charged the $300 civil assessment if they don’t pay or miss their court date. It’s archaic; no one knows about it,’” said one California court.

“It is not just that the threat of a civil assessment may not produce the intended results, it’s that the imposition of civil assessments may reduce the likelihood that the Court will ever collect the relevant debts,” the report continued.

It was found that a significant amount of money collected from civil assessments actually remain in the court’s possession.

“In fiscal year 2019-20, courts collectively received more than $96 million in revenue from civil assessments,” the report said. “More than “$54 million of those collections were retained by the courts.”

This means that the same judges who decide when to impose a civil assessment and how much to charge are the ones who directly benefit from the revenue these hidden fees generate.

The report recaps that the civil assessment operates as a regressive tax and prevents people from being able to move on with their lives after interacting with the criminal legal system, and entrenching people further into poverty.

Some recommendations given from the report in attempts to end the civil assessment would be to fund the courts without requiring any money to come from court users and to investigate and find an alternative to the commonly used processes to receive money from court users.

About The Author

Keana is a fourth year undergraduate student at California State University, Long Beach. She is majoring in Criminal justice with a minor in Forensics, and plans to graduate Spring 2022. She is anticipating either continuing her education at graduate school or pursuing her career as a Homicide Detective.

Related posts

2 Comments

  1. PhillipColeman

    It was found that a significant amount of money collected from civil assessments actually remain in the court’s possession.

    “In fiscal year 2019-20, courts collectively received more than $96 million in revenue from civil assessments,” the report said. “More than “$54 million of those collections were retained by the courts.”

    This means that the same judges who decide when to impose a civil assessment and how much to charge are the ones who directly benefit from the revenue these hidden fees generate.”

    Bingo!

    There are tens of $Millions more, other fees, only one here is cited. The judicial arm of our government makes these determinations by administrative fiat, the process of which is also “hidden.” No public notice that these fees are to be set or revised is made, no provision for public input or protest is allowed. Those processes are subject to public scrutiny in the two other branches of our democracy, not the judiciary.

    Most of all, this process is a blatant “conflict of interest” in every sense of its legal definition. Judges benefit directly by having their individual and collective court operation budgets augmented by these fees.

    Keep digging and expanding, Keanea, you just touched the surface. No minor traffic infraction should exceed double digits, no fine totals should have court-set fees that double, triple, or more the basic penalty.

    When it comes to reform of the criminal justice system and its outrageous cost, this never comes up in public discussion and debate. That’s because it’s deliberately “hidden.”

     

  2. Alan Miller

    Hidden Court Civil Assessments Increasing Financial Burden on Poor in California

    These fees don’t just put a dent in the poor.  Anyone who isn’t downright rich is going to feel the pain of these ever-increasing and criminal fees.

    I’d love to see a short vid made where a defendant turns the table on the court and becomes the judge, putting the court on trial for the court fees.

    Any fees should in the fines and the fines known.  Lack of funding of courts should be dealt with at the legislative level and the courts funded up front, not via the wazoo of those committing infractions.

    And yes, it really hurts the poor.  Typical of government, it tries to make like it’s doing ‘good’ up front while stabbing the same populations in the back.

    Thanks for exposing this.  Keep peeling.

    Next:  demonstrations!

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for