The news isn’t all bad for ticketed drivers. Clearing a citation for a minor equipment violation (broken tail light, for example) is getting cheaper: $38 including surcharges, instead of $104, according to court documents reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The city of Atlanta’s revenue office had proposed hikes to a broad range of traffic penalties as a way to add millions to the city’s coffers. But the final decision rested with the judges at the Municipal Court of Atlanta.
Chief Judge Christopher Ward said the judges considered a variety of factors, especially public safety, when setting the new amounts. But he said generating revenue was not a part of the discussion.
“We are a separate branch of government, and our concern is the administration of justice — that is what we are held to do,” Ward said.
The judges opted for upping pre-pay costs for many moving violations, while deciding to offer a more forgiving option for equipment failures because those tend to be more common among low-income drivers.
The court offers the option of paying off less-serious traffic tickets in advance, for those who prefer to avoid a trip to a court that has a reputation for packed courtrooms and long waits. Technically, the pre-court payment is a “bond” — not a fine — that is forfeited to clear the case.
Judges have to sign off on the standard pre-pay amounts so that people can clear their cases that way. Ward, the chief judge, said the newly-approved bond amounts will go into place on Wednesday.
For defendants who choose to appear in court to fight their tickets or ask for leniency, Ward said judges can exercise their discretion and impose whatever fine or sentence they find appropriate after hearing evidence. Ward said a myriad of issues, such as the person’s prior record, factor into a judge’s decision. Often, he said, rather than impose fines, judges order community service, safety classes, treatment options and even suspended fines.
Plenty of defendants also walk out of court being found not guilty.
Revenue or public safety?
The connection between traffic fines and revenue generation has been a sensitive matter for years. But it’s been an especially touchy subject this year, after the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation in Ferguson, Missouri found that law enforcement practices there were shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than public safety.
High fines imposed by judges for minor misdemeanors have also attracted attention in Georgia. That's because the state has an unusual system that relies heavily on private probation companies to collect traffic fines from poor people over time, while adding probation fees to the tab.
The Atlanta Municipal Court already sends more people to private probation supervision than any other court in the state, according to an AJC analysis of state probation records.
“Our courts are supposed to dispense justice and protect public safety, so there’s something unseemly about the extent to which courts are now seen as a source of revenue for cash-strapped cities,” said Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “So many of these fines are levied on people too poor to pay and collected by a for-profit company that charges additional, monthly fees to collect people’s money over time. Depending on the courts for revenue generation can come at a cost of undermining people’s confidence in the criminal justice system.”
The changes to the Atlanta court's pre-payment amounts will arrive on the same day a new state law takes effect to reform Georgia's use of misdemeanor probation.
The new law prescribes a more affordable system, especially for poor defendants. The law limits monthly supervision fees for people placed on probation only to pay off fines, and it requires judges to use community service or other alternatives to fines for poor defendants.
The new law also demands what a U.S. Supreme Court decision already required: that judges can’t revoke probation for a failure to pay a fine if the person is indigent and the failure to pay is not willful.
Ward, who just became chief judge in May, has said that the court is more than prepared to follow the new law. But he also acknowledged this week that he's still working to make sure the court finishes its response to a Georgia Supreme Court decision in November that required courts around the state to recall and cancel arrest warrants tied to old misdemeanor probation cases that had been put on hold.
Sentinel Offender Services, the court’s private probation company, has reported to the state that the court has more than 18,000 warrants tied to misdemeanor probation cases on its books. That number hasn’t dropped since the November decision.
But Ward said that since he took over as the chief judge, he has determined that court had properly recalled and cancelled about 17,500 old warrants. That action meant no one would be picked up on any of those warrants. He said the court simply needs to officially convey its information to Sentinel, so that the probation company’s system can be updated, too.
“Based on the information I have been provided, no defendants or probationers will suffer any hardships,” Ward said.