Civil Assessments: The Hidden Court Fee That Penalizes Poverty


In FY 19-20, courts retained $54 million of the $96 million in revenue collected from civil assessments.

California allows courts to charge a civil assessment fee of up to $300 to people who miss a deadline to pay or appear in court. An estimated 300,000 people receive civil assessments each year, primarily for missing a payment deadline. The majority of courts utilize their discretion to set their civil assessment to the maximum $300 amount, making late fees 126 percent of the total cost of a citation. People who miss payment deadlines often cannot afford their citations. An added $300 citation can exacerbate a person’s debt cycle and decrease their ability to pay the amount owed entirely. To better understand the harms Californians face due to civil assessments, their uncollectibility, and the racial disparities and conflicts of interest that result from their imposition, the authors surveyed 200 individuals with recent traffic citations. This report discusses those findings and provides recommendations to advance common-sense policies driven by data. 

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Key Findings:

  • 35 of the 40 California courts assessed set their civil assessment at $300.
  • In California, civil assessments are added to one in three infractions.
  • Late fees for late-payments varied from $30 to $125 in five other states compared to California’s $300 late fee. 
  • 68 percent of those surveyed could not afford to pay the $300 civil assessment.
  • 73 percent of the survey respondents were unaware they could be charged a $300 assessment for missing a court appearance or payment deadline.  
  • After one California county implemented ability-to-pay criteria, 97 percent of cases were unable to pay the full $300 civil assessment
  • California DMV data from 2016 shows that 92 percent of the zip codes with above-average non-payment/non-appearance rates had household income levels lower than the average.
  • Data from one California county found  48.7 percent of people arrested for failure to appear or pay traffic court warrants are Black; Black people only make up 5.8 percent of the local population.
  • San Francisco Superior Court has a 13.5 percent collection rate for civil assessments; revenue from civil assessments has decreased by 36 percent across the state in the past five years. 
  • In FY 20-21, courts across the state collectively spent $20.1 million attempting to collect $69.9 million in civil assessments.
  • Alternatives to civil assessments for missed court appearances and payment deadlines are text message reminders and conducting trials absentia.


  • End civil assessments.
  • Incorporate common-sense process improvements that address the failure to pay or appear.
  • Directly fund courts through California’s general fund.
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