By Forgiving Warrants and Fines, Communities Give People a Fresh Start

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

YES! Magazine – Keith Griffin

Izell Mayes drove without a license for about 20 years, the result of unpaid traffic tickets, missed court dates and compounding fines that seemed impossible to pay off. Still, the 45-year-old plumber and father had to take his children to school and get to work. When he was eventually pulled over, it meant arrest and more fines.

The worst experience came on a family vacation to a Six Flags amusement park in Texas, when a Louisiana state trooper pulled him over and hauled him away in handcuffs in front of his kids for driving on a suspended license. Afraid of other complications, Mayes avoided court dates, and the bench warrants piled up.

Eventually, he owed nearly $23,000.

Everything changed in 2017 after Mayes attended a warrant clinic in New Orleans that helped people clear old traffic tickets and bench warrants. He arrived at the clinic, held on the grounds of Corpus Christi-Epiphany Roman Catholic Church in the Seventh Ward. For more than 100 years, the church has served one of the nation’s largest communities of Black Catholics—a product of New Orleans’ painful history as a French colony in which Le Code Noire, or Black Code, dictated that slaves were to be baptized in the church.

Researchers say it’s a problem nationwide, affecting millions of people. A 2016 study in California from the East Bay Community Law Center found that license suspensions for failing to pay fines or appear in court are “directly correlated with poverty indicators and with race,” with driver’s license suspension rates ranging as high as five times the state average in communities that are primarily Black or Latino.

California, alone, has an estimated 4.2 million residents with driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid tickets. The diverse state with a strong economy remains the country’s most populous with more than 39.5 million people.

As in many places across the country, housing and job opportunities in New Orleans can be far-flung, with public transit options limited. An automobile can be essential not only for getting to work, but for rising through the ranks at many jobs. Mayes, for instance, had been working in facilities at Louisiana State University, but wasn’t eligible for promotions that required him to drive work vehicles.

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