Driving Into Debt: The Need For Traffic Ticket Fee Reform

This report explains how the California courts’ interest in revenue collection causes a burden of debt for citizens and recommends alternatives to traditional collection methods that raise more revenue while causing less harm. The report also details how California traffic tickets used to lead to a license suspension. 

Authors’ introduction: “This report examines how policies and practices such as high fixed fines, fees, and license suspensions – all driven by the need for revenue – distort fundamental principles of justice, perpetuate inequity, and cause significant harm to the well-being of millions of Californians. We conclude with recommendations to implement an ability-to-pay system, address debt, end license suspensions, and reevaluate the funding structure of the judicial system. These proposals could carry tremendous impact for ensuring equity in California courts and the fair administration of justice for all Californians.” 

You can read the full text of the report here

Key Findings
  • In California, a speeding ticket that has a base fine of $100 costs drivers $490 after additional fees are added. If a person misses a court appearance or payment, a civil assessment and associated fees can bring the ticket to almost $1,000.
  • “About 8 million Californians, equal to the population of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, and Fresno combined, hold an estimated $6.5 billion in delinquent debt on traffic tickets filed prior to January of 2013.” 
  • Before state legislation ended license suspension for nonpayment, 47 percent of drivers who received a $300 civil assessment for failure to pay or failure to appear had their license suspended. 


  • Implement a uniform statewide graduated fine system, based on a reasonable standard of living, that automatically assesses income and assigns a proportional fine based on a percentage of daily income. 
  • End license suspensions intended to compel payment.
  • Discharge uncollectible debts.
  • Re-evaluate the funding structure of the judicial system.



Annette Case and Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Insight Center for Community Economic Development