A tale of two tickets

You can have radically different experiences with getting pulled over depending on your skin color.

SOURCERobert Reich

RR:  Hi, I’m Robert Reich.  

WKB: And I’m W. Kamau Bell.  

RR: We’re teaming up to highlight an issue that matters a lot to both of us. It starts with what you might call a “tale of two tickets.” Say you happen to be going for a drive in Oakland and your car has a broken tail light.  You see the flashing blue lights, and your heart drops. Oh no, you think, I’m going to get a ticket.

WKB: Oh c’mon, Robert. You aren’t going to get a ticket.  You’re a white, former secretary of labor. I’m 6’4’’ black guy! I’m going to get a ticket.  

RR: 6’4”?

WKB: Gentle Giant.

RR: You’re too tall.

WKB: That’s why this is “a tale of two tickets!” You can have radically different experiences with getting pulled over depending on your skin color.

Number one: You’re more likely to get pulled over if you’re black. No surprise. In 2017 in Oakland, California, out of the almost 97,000 black people who live here, more than 19,000 got pulled over. But of the more than 116,000 white people who live here, more and more moving in every day, only a few over 2,800 were pulled over. That means you are 10 times more likely to be pulled over driving while black.  

Number two: When you get pulled over, if you are black, the officer is more likely to speak to you disrespectfully. You are much more likely to be searched, handcuffed, arrested, poked, prodded, and prosecuted. And almost all of what are called “use of force” incidents are against black people.  

RR: You know, it’s not just the likelihood of being pulled over. It’s also the consequences.

Start with the ticket itself. A broken taillight in California is usually a “fix it” ticket. If you can fix it, it costs about $35. But if you don’t or can’t pay, with penalties and assessments, it quickly goes up to $235. And in a year it can be as high as $835.

WKB: And for those who have a brush with the criminal justice system as a result of getting pulled over, who are almost all black, the costs can balloon quickly.

A so-called free public defender costs, on average, $500.

If you are convicted and put on probation, you will get a bill for $6,000 just to cover those costs.

RR: These fines and fees can easily put a family into debt – especially if you are black.  For example, the average black family as $5 in savings for every $100 of a typical white family.  

WKB: What the f***? (bleeped)

RR: Exactly.

With debt comes the risk of being hounded by predatory debt collectors.

Also, the arrest and conviction can result in the loss of a job and make it harder to get another one.

If you are on probation for a prior offense, failing to pay the debt can put you back in prison. In a tragic irony, it can also put pressure on an individual to commit a crime just to pay the debt.

This is what people politely call a cascade of consequences.  

WKB: And what I impolitely call a cascade of s*** (bleeped) on poor communities generally, and communities of color in particular.  

RR: It’s known academically as  “The Criminalization of Poverty.” And it has to be stopped.

WKB: Ok, you say, that sucks if you are poor and black. But I’m rich and white. Hey, I’ve got some news: it’s bad for you, too.

RR: In addition to being a massive drain on the economy, these fees don’t even help cash-strapped cities. Uncollected court debt for traffic and criminal offenses totaled $12.3 billion in 2016 in California alone. A lot of the fee revenue that does come in goes to collection services, that are private and for profit. Which means very little of the money that is collected winds up going to roads, bridges, schools, and other good things we all need.

WKB: That’s why we need to stop the criminalization of poverty. Have you heard of win-win? Well, this is lose-lose, non-win. It sucks. It’s bad for EVERYBODY.  

RR: Bad for poor people, bad for the social fabric, and doesn’t even help the bottom line for government.

WKB: Our home state of California is helping to lead the charge to stop the criminalization of poverty.  Go to CAdebtjustice.org for more information. Go. Don’t just watch the video. Go.


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Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founder of the nonprofit Inequality Media and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, Inequality for All.