Report: How Routine Traffic Enforcement Criminalizes Poverty

Posted on August 21, 2020 by Richard Murphy

One takeaway from the League’s Policy Forum series this year was a call to be attentive to how policy can have inequitable impacts on different people. The effect of a policy might vary wildly based on factors like their race or income, and local leaders need to carefully consider these impacts to avoid doing severe harm.

Our recent webinar with staff attorneys from the Detroit Justice Center highlighted one of these systems: how routine traffic enforcement can hit a low-income driver with unmanageable fees, snowballing into misdemeanor charges and pushing people into job loss, prison, or homelessness—and how this system disproportionately affects Black Michiganders.

cover of Detroit Justice Center's "Highway Robbery" reportin their report Highway Robbery: How Metro Detroit Cops & Courts Steer Segregation and Drive Incarceration, the Detroit Justice Center has described this syndrome in detail, along with recommendations that local leaders can use to begin unwinding these severe harms. While the report focuses on metro Detroit, the patterns extend across the state. DJC notes that over half of misdemeanor court dockets in Michigan stem from traffic violations, making this an issue on which local leaders anywhere can begin chipping away.

Their report recommends both local policies that leverage officer or city attorney discretion as circuit breakers—in not issuing or prosecuting certain misdemeanor traffic tickets. It also suggests opportunities to advocate for more significant fixes at the state level—such as adequately funding the district courts, removing the perverse incentives of a court system that funds itself through fines.

They also reference communities that have police issuing repair vouchers, rather than citations, for issues like broken taillights. That’s a simple fix that ensures the driver can stay on the road rather than spiraling into court, job loss, jail, or eviction, and the costs to the community that come with all of those.

Work like this, examining how existing or proposed policies affect different residents and dismantling the systems that cause harm to Black Michiganders, is critical to improving racial equity in our communities, and, ultimately, to creating systems that build community wealth.

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