Gov. Brown's amnesty for the poor is a good start

Governor Jerry Brown recently called the despair poor Californians feel having gone through municipal violations such as speeding and going through a red light a “hellhole of desperation.”

Cases where an unemployed labor worker was cited with a minor traffic violation costing $76 for a first-time offender. The ticket soared to a $4,500 debt with the loss of his license over the course of one year. This, and many stories like it, caused Gov. Brown to consider an amnesty program to relieve a portion of the debt California’s working poor owe the court system.

 Of course there’s the catch-22 caused by the courts when handing down a penalty beyond the financial reach of the poor. Pay the fine or else lose your license. Lose your license and you lose or have no way of obtaining a job.

For far too many California’s the suspension or revocation of their license starts a spiral down effect. Reducing or forgiving a half of their debt to the courts, as the Governor is proposing, is a good start. But there’s more that can be done and could be beneficial to both the state and the education of violators.

Courts should rethink the penalty phase of an infraction. After all this is a teachable moment. Currently some courts offer community service in the form of cleaning freeways or traffic school for first offenders – but is that effective and does anyone get anything real benefit out of such programs?

A real learning program could actually consist of enrolling in a community college.

Courts could offer an option to pay a fine or attend a class. Colleges could provide courts a list of low-attended classes from which violators could attend and complete within a year period in lieu of paying a fine.

The violators win because they have an opportunity to attend college and pay roughly $129 for a three-unit class ($175 with enrollment fees). The college wins because they fill courses saving ad hoc professor’s jobs. Court’s need only receive notice from the college the terms have been satisfied to dismiss or close a case.

This avoids additional fees and penalties collection agencies used by the courts tack on to original fines that land the poor with an even deeper financial burden.

In this scenario people earn a learning experience, may continue on with their education and help protect teacher jobs at the same time.

This is merely a suggestion, one of many possible scenarios. The main point being it’s time for the system to stop creating unmanageable situations for the working poor and provide fair and equitable justice for minor violations.

Mario Guerra is the former mayor of Downey and president of Independent Cities Association, representing over 50 cities and 7 million residents. He can be reached at