How a Traffic Offense Can Be a Ticket to Prison

images-2How can a traffic offense get you a ticket to prison?

The answer is, “Quite easily if you’re poor!”

Let’s take a look at the system of court fines and then correct it, our criminal justice system is rigged against poor people – and a big part of the Ferguson problem was how this system was working against the poor.

Prof. Karin Martin at John Jay College of Criminal Justice had some interesting things to say about these disparities in a recent letter to The New York Times:

“My research on the use of monetary penalties indicates that the widespread system of assessing interconnected fines, fees, penalty assessments and the like raises challenging questions of fairness. For a public institution to be the originator and the beneficiary of fines provides a troublesome incentive to direct resources away from other critical but less lucrative law-enforcing or adjudicating tasks (clearing backlogs of DNA analysis or testing rape kits). In fact, collection rates nationwide are abysmal: far below 50 percent in some jurisdictions. Most problematic is the tendency of fines and fees to be self-perpetuating (failure to pay prompts additional fees) and net-widening (subjecting more offenses to fines). A result is that the system of fines violates the fundamental tenet of proportionality in our criminal justice system.

“A good solution would be to follow the European model of day fines, in which monetary sanctions are calculated as a percentage of income. This approach takes into account offense severity in addition to ability to pay. As such, it is an effective punishment that generates income, but it does so without sacrificing justice.” [See also Ferguson Sets Broad Change for City Courts.]

She presents a reasonable solution — fines should be based on income not some legislated sum of money.

So how does a traffic ticket get you to prison?  It goes like this: You are poor and looking for work. This morning you are driving to a new job. You’re late and you are driving too fast. You need get to work on time. Now you are stopped by police.

You don’t consider yourself a criminal and certainly not a person who could ever end up in prison. Prison is for bad people and you’re not a bad person. Sure, you might smoke a little dope, but would never steal anything or hurt anyone. People who do that should go to prison, but that’s not you.

You have now just been handed a $200 speeding ticket. You can’t pay it. You have no money. So you don’t show up in court and now a warrant for your arrest is out there in cyberspace. Still, you don’t considered yourself to be a criminal.

Now you need to avoid police at all costs. You can’t afford to go to jail and loose this new job. Your driver’s license is now suspended. Public transportation in your city will not get you to where you work. You continue to drive your ca

You must not get stopped by police. But an optical-scanning device reads your vehicle plates and you are stopped by police. You have three options, speed away, dump the car and run, or submit to arrest. Either option will eventually get you in jail.

You submit to arrest. You’re now in jail and have lost the job that took you three months to find. A job, incidentally, needed to support not only you but your family. Fees and more fees are tagged on to that original $200 fine.

When you get out of jail you still need to find a job and you need transportation.

The next time you are stopped you vow not to be arrested. You simply cannot afford it. So you run and are caught and physically arrested, you try to get away. The end result is that you are charged with resisting arrest and, possibly, battery to a police officer as a result of your resistance.

State prison is now just a matter of time.

Campbell Robertson and Joseph Goldstein reported in the New York Times last month that this problem is very present in St Louis County, Mo. and Ferguson. However, this situation is not restricted to St Louis County, it is a situation that exists in almost every city in America.

“Young black men, who in many towns in St. Louis County are pulled over at a rate greater than whites, routinely find themselves in the patchwork of municipal courts here, without lawyers and unable to pay the fines levied for their traffic violations. Many end up being passed from jail to jail around the county until they can pay their fines and in some cases other administrative fees, a revenue source on which some towns are growing increasingly reliant. 

“’It angers people, because it seems like they’re just messing with you,’ said Cameron Lester, a 22-year-old college student who knew Mr. Brown, and days earlier was protesting his death. He described how an unpaid $75 ticket once turned into days behind bars in two different police stations and hundreds of dollars in fees. He was skeptical about change…

“When a person fails to appear and pay, here as in many other places, a warrant is issued and that person’s license is suspended. In the hodgepodge of cities that make up St. Louis County, some drivers may have multiple warrants. In Ferguson, more than one and a half warrants have been issued for every resident (my emphasis). And as the warrants stack up, so do the fines: Not showing up to pay a $90 taillight violation means a failure-to-appear warrant with its own fee of $100 or more; each successive failure-to-appear warrant adds to that; and if there is a stop, there are incarceration fees and towing fees.

“’In the end,’ said Brendan Roediger, an assistant professor at St. Louis University Law School, ‘a person who had trouble coming up with $90 might owe a jurisdiction well over a thousand dollars…’”

To read their full story, CLICK HERE.

So what can be done? How do we get off the merry-go-round of imprisoning poor people for traffic infractions and minor offenses?

One solution would be to have a sliding scale based on income for offenders. Another would be to adopt the European systems of a percent of your daily wage. But what would the result be?

You and I know, decreasing income to city coffers and, in response, the raising of taxes. Let’s see, who’s in favor of that?

These are the type of system inequities that police leaders should identify and work to change. The current system we use is simply unfair and must be changed.

Keeping this system operating is not going to bring peace to our cities or insure the safety of our police officers. Instead, it puts our nation’s police in the increasing view of being unfair and presiding over a system of fundamental unfairness; a system which targets the poor and puts them in prison.


AND… for an update — how disparity in the legal system applies to Ferguson.

Ferguson Takes a New Tack on Fines.

In Ferguson, a Stack of Warrants.


  1. I’m sorry, but this sounds like apologist nonsense to me. Being poor does not force people to disregard the speed limit. It also does not force people to ignore court appearance. Nor does it force people to continue driving when they’ve already been caught and are trying to avoid the police. I can see how such a scenario comes about, and how it can stack up fines and land people in prison, but it has nothing to do with being poor, and everything to do with bad behavior and being irresponsible. The sliding scale fee might be workable, but I’d want to see data from some place that’s already doing it, if possible.

    This issue is why I get really testy with alleged advocates for the poor complaining about how “unfair” the law is for poor people. It’s not unfair if a rich person and a poor person have the same speed limit. If the poor person doesn’t have money to pay fines, then he better not speed. I don’t speed even if I can afford the fines, because I consider fines to be a waste of my resources. Better to just leave earlier and NOT SPEED.

    You might be able to make a better argument with regard to poor people being cited for poorly maintained vehicles, or driving without insurance. Vehicle maintenance and insurance are often deferred by the poor in favor of groceries.


    1. Andrea, whether its about speeding or other minor infractions the fact is that most of us have at one of more times done something we could have been arrested for. It is important that police realize this (hence my pressing for educated, knowledgeable cops) and be able to understand how the “system works.” And in our society, the system tends not to work well for poor folks. My main point of this post was to describe to many folks that their ability to pay a fine keeps them OUT of the system, whereas those folks who are poor and indigent get INTO the system. I am comfortable with the European model. It is fair and makes sense. When sanctions are placed on citizens for their bad behavior, a percentage of their daily wage would be best. I believe those of us who have means are obligated to act with compassion toward those who do not. Maybe this is more theology than public administration but it still makes sense in a society such as ours. Thank you you last examples — poorly maintained vehicles, lack of insurance are better examples. Thanks for reminding me, I should have used them rather than the speeding scenario!


      1. These are fun issues to discuss, especially with a thoughtful person! 🙂
        I agree that the ability to pay keeps a person out of the system, but I also think an inability to pay should be a deterrent to bad behavior. That’s why littering fines are so large; it’s not to be proportional to the crime, it’s to deter people from doing trivial, stupid, mindless crap by making it hurt. My major concern with using a percentage of wages is that there are plenty of people who, at least officially, have zero income. A percentage of zero is still zero, so those people would then be able to break the law with impunity, as there would be no consequence. You could then end up in a position in which running a stop sign, or driving an unsafe car, costs a rich man plenty, and costs a poor man nothing, and then the poor man has no incentive to stop doing it. The point is to deter people from behavior that may harm others. A child that gets run over by a speeding car will be just as dead whether the driver was rich or poor, and no amount of money will bring the kid back.


      2. Absolutely. As to the “no income” folks they could do community service. I do agree that fines are there to deter thoughtless and irresponsible behavior — and should. Well, a very good discussion, Andrea, do you work in the CJ field or just a well-informed citizen? Have a great weekend!


      3. Thanks, David! I’m just an opinionated citizen that learned too late that I even had an interest in these topics. I find that most people aren’t capable of discussing them, either because they don’t care, or they have a fixed agenda. I also grew up pretty well dirt poor, and saw the excuses poor people use. I’ve never been around the very wealthy, so don’t know their excuses! I think the community service idea is a good one, however, one reason poor people are poor is because they have kids; then they have to juggle work and daycare, so community service would be as difficult to schedule as an extra shift.


      4. Thanks for the info. Some researchers believe that the current downswing in crime is because of women having better access to birth control. That remains to be seen. I try and remind each one of my grandchildren before they become teenagers that not being poor all your life will be predicated on two things: not getting pregnant during your school years and graduating from high school!

        I encourage you to keep pursuing your interests — follow your passion. And thanks again for being such an interesting commentator!


  2. If we adopted the European model of ability to pay on one’s income, I don’t think that the cities, counites, and states would be making money off the poor to cover their expenses. You can go on the Internet and find excuses that rich people and corporations use to when they committed crimes like polluting rivers, the air, and the ground.

    It is pathetic that corporations when they are in court, they pay a fine and without having to plead gulity to what they done and continue their business as usual. Or if they get fine, they complain that it is excessive and appeal the decision. If you want to deter white collar, corporate crime, you need to hit them with fines that really hurts their profits, send their CEOs and high ranking managements to prison (20 years at least without parole), and stripped them of their business licenses and remind them that having a business license is a privilege not a right.


  3. No it is not fair and it has been going on for too far long. Makes you wonder why people don’t go to church or/and believe in God anymore and who can blame them?

    The latest excuse for rich people used these days is affluezna:


  4. I am not total opposed to some of the concepts here. I would certainly support community service for the poor over jail time for traffic offenses or lesser, non-violent crimes. Sometimes that is definitely an option, but only if you show up to court. Not showing up is what gets you arrested. You are not being arrested for the traffic offense but for contempt of court in that case. I know in many places they courts will work with someone who makes an effort. I was involved in civil disobedience in the late 80’s and community service in lieu of a fine was an option then in California. I served in a nursing home assisting the activities director. Perhaps there could be a little education in some communities about the importance of showing up and how it could be to their benefit.


  5. Great article and I can see how this can and does work it’s a whirlpool effect, plus I can also see another branch that was missed when the driver ran, the officer shoots and kills the person because it’s dark and late figuring he’s done something or is about to do something and clams “I feared for my life” as a justification. The SYSTEM needs to be FIXED….the sooner the better.


  6. Why cannot they just give all the fines to the heart association or another meaningful charity ??? All that money goes for cops to be paid and skimmed off the top somewhere along the line. Just like the port authority on Ny and nj was audited a few years ago and cannot account for more than half the money they collected. I get tickets in nyc that I never received from the cops. I drop off a passenger in a bus stop or fire hydrant taking 30 seconds and a cop standing across the street takes the particulars of the vehicle and writes up a ticket and throws the receipt in the garbage . I have had my cars towed numerous times and boots put on cars in nyc while the driver was sitting in the car. I cannot wait till cars drive themselves and cops cannot no longer give anyone a traffic ticket I hate the traffic system and its only a cash cow for the upper ups in the system to skim off the top. Just got a ticket in nyc and I do not even have a cell phone but just cause I was looking down at written directions I was deemed to be using my cellphone. I hate the law and laws will never change people’s behavior the way it’s going. If nobody broke the speeding laws they would keep on lowering the speed limit till you do break the law. I hate this country only because of the way laws are made. Wish I could leave and go to another country but cannot cause I have a criminal record when I was younger and no other country will accept you ! F**k all laws in this country. There is going to be a nervous breakdown of laws here.


  7. Absolute baloney. First, if the new job is important, you plan to get there on time. You then choose to be late or break the law. If you choose to break the law and get caught, you face the consequences – it’s not society that is oppressing the poor, this is the result of one person’s behavior. Second, speeding tickets can generally allow for posting your license as bond. Third, the defendant doesn’t even go to court. I’ve lived in a few places and my son was in a similar circumstance (was stopped improperly by a profiler (who admitted he stopped him because young people shouldn’t be driving around at 3 a.m.) but found he was suspended for unpaid University parking ticket) and when I told him to go to court, he got 6 months to pay all the fines. Again this was all his doing. He had to borrow money from me once but he paid on time and was done. This fictional oppressed dude would not have lost his license for a simple speeding ticket and could get a hardship license. He then chooses to break the law again, then runs, resists arrest, is charged with battery – again all the result of his continued bad decisions. I’ve made mistakes but took the ticket, went to court, paid the fines and after some time all was back to normal. MY CHOICES. Stop blaming society for people like you describe who break the law repeatedly, don’t take responsibility and continue to make wrong choices.


    1. John, perhaps you should read the DOJ report on Ferguson. All state laws are not the same and unjustly punish the poor. One man’s baloney is another’s truth. Justice without mercy is cruelty (Aquinas).


      1. Mr. Curran. You need to watch Last Week tonight with John Oliver regarding municipal violations, mandatory sentencing in the USA, judicial elections, and public defenders in the USA and then call back and talk to us about personal responsibility.

        What about wealthy people and CEOs taking responsibility for polluting the land, air and water, selling toxic products, committing labor violations, etc., and getting prison time for what they have done?


  8. Well said, Chief. I’ve been discussing these topics with friends and family in and out of law enforcement. One thing I would add that doesn’t get enough attention–and concerns me greatly–is the way this increases the danger to officers. We must start acknowledging that these everyday injustices build upon each other when poor people are stopped repeatedly. I’ve known instances where one young black man was stopped four times in one night. By the time the 4th officer stops him, he’s angry and the cop, regardless of how polite has become the enemy. If that officer isn’t polite…well…it gets worse. My point isn’t to excuse people from following traffic rules, but law enforcement has to start thinking about these numbers policies and the very real way the over-policing we have engaged in over the past decade+ has contributed to the dangerous situation we find ourselves in now.

    I’d welcome further discussion on this point of view.


      1. I would love to get a little momentum going on this and a few other topics like that involve introspection. A couple police friends of mine and I have been talking about how we need to drill down beyond generalizations like bad apples. We all have seen specific disrespect, indifference and sometimes outright rudeness, far too often. I argue that these little indignities compounded over time build to real and sustained problems, that clearly, we can no longer afford to ignore.


  9. Well the police overall have not stood up to city hall or even with their own administration regarding stop and frisk or ticket quotas to funded the city budget (like Ferguson) plus their own bias attitudes towards minorities and poor people. No moral courage at all.


  10. Should we be jailing citizens for a single instance of an unpaid fine for a speeding ticket? Why are private cooperations cashing in by building and operating for profit prisons? Why does the system that enforces laws (and has a big influence on new laws which result in more criminalization) also directly receive financial rewards for putting people away and charging them with crimes. Sounds like a self-perpetuating system with a blatant conflict of interest. Nobody should be put in jail for an unpaid traffic violation. Is unless you don’t mind funding the law enforcement and judicial system in this country which has gone off the deep end. Let’s keep putting US citizens in jail to make money.


  11. If we keep putting people in prison, we will have to import workers from other countries because all our people are locked up and even if they are released from prison, they will can not get a job, housing, voting rights, etc., because of their criminal records. In addition, the cops deprive themselves of having a large recruitment of police candidates because of having a criminal record no matter how minor it is.


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  13. I feel that a minor traffic offense should not lead to jail time community service should be served to pay off the fines especially if this is your first time being in this predicament this might be a small crime but nothing that you should be locked away in jail for the jail system is already overcrowded something so minor would be a waste of the taxpayers money save the jail system for the real hardened criminals


  14. I totally agree with the author of the article. What can an average citizen do to help bring about change to the Justice System?


    1. One effective response would be to quit penalizing the poor and do like some European states do with regard to fines — charge an offender a certain percentage of their annual income. More would be to assess the reasonableness of the fine. Some traffic offenses with added surtaxes approach the $300 range — a major hit on a single mom working at minimum wage. She can’t pay? Goes to warrants and then she goes to jail! We can find better ways to assure compliance with our traffic laws.


  15. Chief,
    I am asking for a one on one discussion on How to remedy the problem in Ferguson and all of the area surrounding Ferguson.
    Let’s discuss this issue by email first.
    Eventually, I would like to come to Ferguson and assist you with all of the issues you are facing within the department and in the city and surrounding area. Can we do that? If so, my email address is: or call/text me at: 7046098094


  16. A lot of problems with putting people in jail for traffic offenses.

    1. There’s a warrant for his arrest. People are scared, the office itches for his gun. We do not want confrontations where the office is scared where the warrant only involves sloppy bill-paying.

    2. Yes it is wrong to put people in jail for not paying a minor ticket, and warrants and jail should be reserved for major problems.

    3. Yes the system can be racist as Ferguson showed. White, you get a warning, friend is a cop you might have a card, black, you can put in jail. (sadly the Afro-American community fails to focus on this issue instead of the justifiable shootings where police are in genuine danger.


    1. Good points, much in need of community-wide discussion. See Alice Goffman’s book, “On the Run: Fugitive Life in America” and how traffic enforcement turns into tickets, warrants and eventually prison for young black youth in Philadelphia.


  17. And this has little to do with law enforcement, little to do with danger, and sadly everything to do with raising money for towns on the backs of the poor something America was established to prevent (the debtor’s prisons of England).


  18. Bobby5000

    That is why the colony of Georgia was founded to get people out of debtor prison in England; however, I do agree with about America not being a debtor prison considering the fact that the American public is stuck with subsidizing the costs of housing and feeding the people while the private companies keep all the profits


  19. “If we approached traffic safety as a public health problem, how would we approach it?”

    I would approach as putting more money into buses, cable cars, and light rails like they have in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Europe so people have more opportunities to get to work without using their car. I would also make sure that such modes of transportation are within walking distance and are available 24/7 so it would make it easy for people to get more walking into their daily lives since studies have shown that people will walk to use these modes of transportation if such means are within 1/2 to 1 mile of their residency. I would ensure that the monthly passes are affordable; otherwise, people can’t use them if they can’t afford them.


  20. I liked that you said that one way to ensure that you don’t get arrested from failing to pay your traffic ticket is to find the money from someone you trust in order to pay the traffic system. I have been worried that I would receive further consequences from failing to pay a traffic ticket but I haven’t been able to give them the money. I will be sure to borrow money from someone that I trust so that I won’t have to worry about getting arrested.


  21. Ashley, much of the American population don’t have $400 dollars for an emergency such as a traffic ticket and most Americans don’t have friends and family members that they can turn to in order to get the money


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