Sometimes There’s a Reward for Not Paying Off Parking & Traffic Tickets

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Your mother was wrong about procrastination and irresponsibility. They can, in fact, pay off in a good way down the line. Amnesty programs have been popping up around the country, allowing drivers with outstanding parking and traffic tickets to pay off what they owe—without penalties or late fees. An ongoing program in California even knocks 50% off the amount owed on some traffic tickets.

Last fall, California announced it would be offering a six-month discount on unpaid traffic tickets. Starting at the beginning of 2012, and lasting until the end of June, the Amnesty Program for Traffic Tickets knocks 50% off tickets so long as the following criteria are met:

• Your outstanding traffic debt was due to be paid in full before January 1, 2009;
• The last date you made a payment was on or before January 1, 2009;
• You either failed to appear in court or failed to pay in full;
• You do not owe restitution to a victim on any case within the county where the violation was filed; AND
• You have no outstanding misdemeanor or felony warrants within the county where the violation was filed.

The program is strictly for run-of-the-mill parking tickets—no speeding tickets, no DUIs, no reckless driving. Even so, it seems odd for the state to essentially be rewarding irresponsible drivers by giving them a discount that wasn’t ever offered to residents who dutifully paid off their tickets on time and in full.

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Lawmakers and the California courts seem to be able to overlook the unfairness of the program mainly because it promises to collect fines that are unlikely to otherwise be collected. When the program was announced, it was estimated that some $46 million in (half-off) fines would be collected.

That’s a tiny portion of the approximately $900 million owed statewide in overdue traffic tickets. Yet the $46 million figure may have been drastically overestimated. A recent story noted that California’s Tulare County has managed to collect $266,000 thus far via the amnesty program, which is far more than its neighbors. Fresno County has received just $92,000 from drivers so far, while Madera County has collected a measly $17,000. A full report on how the amnesty program fared won’t be available until the fall of 2012.

For a glimpse at how well-intentioned ticket amnesty programs can wind up falling short as optimal revenue-generators, California could look to Long Island’s Nassau County. An amnesty program for parking tickets had to be extended last year after just 2,531 parking tickets worth roughly $150,000 had been paid off over 45 days. At the time, there were 355,000 unpaid parking tickets covered by the program, amounting to nearly $50 million (not including late fees, which would have been waived).

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Likewise, a parking ticket amnesty program in Cincinnati last year had to be extended to give scofflaws an extra-extra chance at paying off their overdue fines.

A recent GasBuddy post, focused on a parking ticket amnesty day held in May in St. Louis, notes that such a program is “one way for a city to stimulate cash flow,” while wondering:

Is it fair to law-abiding people who never get ticketed, or, even to those who pay on time to avoid the penalties? Some of them may have endured hardship in order to pay their tickets, while others who ignored them, perhaps for months or years, are now rewarded for their indifference.

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Beyond the possibility of collecting fines that otherwise would never be paid, one of the arguments made for these amnesty programs is that the penalties for not paying off tickets on time are unduly punitive. In California, drivers must cough up an additional civil assessment of up to $300 if they don’t show up to court or pay their fine on time. In St. Louis, when a parking ticket isn’t paid on time, the fine amount can triple.

So, essentially, amnesty programs attempt to correct harsh, unfair policies by following them up with policies that may seem even more unfair to responsible, law-abiding drivers. Maybe your mom was also wrong about two wrongs not making a right.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.