April 14, 2023 — Testimony

The National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) supports the End Debtor’s Prison Act (Assembly Bill 1266), introduced by Assemblymember Ash Kalra. This bill would amend the penal and vehicle codes to end bench warrants to arrest people for infractions when they do not appear in court or pay a fine.

Under current state law, people who have enough money to pay tickets for low-level violations like loitering or minor traffic violations never have to go to court and are not subject to arrest or jailing. But people who cannot afford to pay and who miss a court appearance to explain this can be arrested. Essentially, the current law allows for a direct line to prison for people who are economically insecure. And due to both the racial wealth gap and systemic racism in the criminal legal system, the harms of this law are likely to disproportionately burden people of color.

Low-income people face serious barriers both to paying fines and to appearing in court to address nonpayment. Even if they receive sufficient notice that they must appear in court, low-income people often cannot appear because of lack of transportation, the risk of losing their job if they miss work, or inability to find substitute childcare.

Research shows that punitive measures such as bench warrants not only threaten low-income people’s ability to maintain and secure employment and housing, but are ineffective in compelling people to pay or appear in court. Common sense, non-punitive practices like text message reminders and follow-ups help get people to appear in court.