By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California legislators have raised fines for traffic infractions to some of the highest in the United States to generate revenue, and the poor are bearing an unfair burden, losing cars and jobs because they cannot pay them, civil rights activists said on Friday.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area said in a new report that the $490 fine for a red light ticket in California was three times the national average. The cost was even higher if motorists wanted to attend traffic school in lieu of a conviction or were late paying.
"Our state is raising money off the backs of California families to balance the budget for special projects, and it's using traffic tickets as a revenue generator instead of to protect safety, instead of to do justice, said Elisa Della-Piana, the group's legal director.
The report, released on Thursday, comes as lawmakers in some states and local jurisdictions have begun to recognize the implications of high traffic fines on the poor and unemployed, especially in minority communities.
Failure to pay a fine on time can lead to a motorist losing his driver license and car, suffer further financial problems and even wind up in jail.
"Studies show 78 percent of Californians drive to work and a very high percentage have to have a license to have a job," Della-Piana said. "If you can't afford to pay $500 this month for a traffic ticket, that's also saying to many families, you lose your household income."
California lawmakers have begun to take baby steps to address the problem, Della-Piana said, with Governor Jerry Brown lately vetoing new attempts by state legislators to raise fines or tack on new fees to traffic tickets as they grapple with deep budget deficits brought on in part by mushrooming public employee pension obligations.
Brown, a Democrat, has also said in his latest budget proposal that the state should not be suspending driver licenses for failure to pay a ticket.
State Senator Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat from Los Angeles, has introduced legislation that would reduce fines based on a motorist's ability to pay.
Della-Piana said California should next stop arresting motorists who cannot afford to pay their tickets. Black people are statistically more likely to be jailed for such offenses, according to the report.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)