Las Vegas Sun

June 26, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Compassionate communities don’t let traffic tickets spiral into bankruptcy

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Steve Marcus

Las Vegas Municipal Court Traffic Commissioner Ann Elworth, right, speaks with a woman who had an outstanding bench warrant during Project Homeless Connect, an annual service and resource fair for at-risk and homeless people, at Cashman Field Center Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. Court specialist Karen Sandle is at left.

This month, Chicago became the second city to launch a task force aimed at reforming what’s known as cash-register justice — law enforcement and court practices that unfairly affect low-income Americans.

Las Vegas should work toward becoming No. 3 on that list.

The root problem they’re trying to address in Chicago happens here too. It’s a downward spiral that occurs when residents who are struggling financially get a ticket for a motor vehicle violation or some other low-level offense, then can’t pay it. They may face jail time or a license suspension as a result, which in turn makes it more difficult for them to get a job or maintain employment. Consequently, their situation becomes even more dire.

The outcome can be harmful not just to the individuals involved but to the whole community. Not only does it increase pressure on social services, but it can contribute to crime, homelessness and generational cycles of poverty.

Granted, people who break the law should face consequences, but the penalty for something so minor as speeding or double parking shouldn’t be the loss of a job or the need to declare bankruptcy.

In Las Vegas, there is some relief for residents who are struggling with court fines. This past August, for instance, the UNLV Boyd School of Law initiated a “warrant quashing” event aimed at resolving outstanding cases in local municipal and justice courts. During the event, similar to one staged annually for veterans, the focus was on dismissing cases by giving offenders credit for time served, putting them on payment plans, allowing them to perform community service in lieu of fines, and so on. UNLV law students were on hand to provide representation for the offenders.

However, those special events only happen after the fact.

But considering that about 2,600 cases were heard in two courts alone during the UNLV event — Las Vegas Justice Court and Las Vegas Municipal Court — it’s clear that the root problem is still a day-to-day issue for many local residents.

That being the case, the community should explore the task force approach, which Chicago launched after it was modeled in San Francisco.

Chicago’s group includes police, city officials, representatives from community organizations, independent researchers and elected leaders. Judges and attorneys are noticeably absent, however — it would be critical to get them in the mix in Las Vegas.

One key issue to address are “user-funded” systems, in which the courts charge fees on top of fines to fund their operations and supplement their city budgets. That approach is rife with abuse, resulting in exorbitant fines and fees being imposed not in the name of justice but to pad courts’ budgets.

The problems with cash-register justice came to the forefront in the aftermath of rioting in Ferguson, Mo., where the Justice Department would later reveal that African-Americans were unfairly targeted for citations and officials were involved in schemes to make as much money as possible from fines and court fees. In addition, the department ruled that officers were encouraged to write as many tickets as they could.

We’re not suggesting that the situation is as dire in Las Vegas as it was in Ferguson.

But Christine Miller, director of community initiatives and outreach for the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, said individuals served by the center continue to struggle daily with high fines and fees for minor infractions.

Justice reforms are being discussed at the state level, where lawmakers passed a number of measures on the issue during the 2017 legislative session and where Gov. Brian Sandoval initiated a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system in August.

The same should happen at the local level, and the task force approach is a promising way to do it.