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The High Cost of Driving While Poor

Alameda County traps people in poverty with steep fines for minor traffic infractions — in a cruel system that depends on punishing Black and low-income residents and is plagued by hypocrisy and conflicts of interest.

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That's because the East Bay Community Law Center helped him get his case in front of an Alameda County judge who presides over a program known as the Homeless and Caring Court. That program, which is a partnership between the courts and the nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County, helps homeless people get nonviolent infractions — including traffic tickets — dismissed. If they can prove that they are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, and if they can show that they are making personal progress in their lives, Judge Gordon Baranco will listen to their story in a formal proceeding and then drop their violations.

"It's already helped me," Smith said after Baranco dismissed his charges in Homeless and Caring Court last month. "I'm just feeling like a normal person again. It just makes me feel like a citizen again, being able to honestly drive." Smith, who got his driver's license reinstated last week, said he feels more motivated then he has in a long time to find employment. "It makes you feel eager and it makes you hungry to search."

It was also the first time that he felt like anyone in the court system actually considered his difficult life circumstances. "They cared enough to real feel your pain ... instead of looking at you as a bill." The tone at Homeless and Caring Court, which takes place at St. Vincent de Paul and the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, is the opposite of Culver's Department 102 at Wiley Manuel. Baranco, who is also Black, praises the defendants for making progress and the crowd applauds at the end of each case.

It's a program that recognizes the hardships facing the most vulnerable people in the East Bay, and one in which officials display the kind of compassion and sympathy that advocates have long wished to see in traffic court. But Homeless and Caring Court happens only once every two months, resolving only a few hundred cases a year — a small fraction of low-income people weighed down by traffic fines. And according to representatives of St. Vincent de Paul, resources are limited and many of the clients they refer to the program have to wait a full year to get a hearing.

During that wait, many of those people fall further into poverty as their debts grow. And they can't legally drive to work.

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