Fine, not Fine
The Boston City Council recently met to talk about parking ticket fees. One item up for discussion is the possibility of income-adjusted fees for parking violations. A newly-elected city councilor at-large wants to make sure paying for parking tickets is not causing residents to go hungry.
The proposed legislation is based on a reported $61 million collected in parking fees in Boston in 2018, meter fines increased from $25 to $40, and data that says “food insecure individuals in Eastern Massachusetts now face an average weekly budget shortfall of $21.21 per person.” Other data shows that 30 percent of Boston residents in the lowest income bracket are in car-dependent neighborhoods.
These are all good reasons to worry about how tickets affect residents. But I can’t wrap my brain around adjusting ticket fees based on income. Breaking the law should carry the same penalties for everyone. Financial status doesn’t make one person’s crime any less or any more criminal than anyone else’s.
It is painful to think about people being forced to choose between paying for a parking ticket or buying food. However, parking is easy to do and can usually be accomplished according to the law. Having a low income doesn’t, as far as I can tell, make it harder to park legally. But I understand it makes parking tickets harder to pay.
I don’t know how this policy would be implemented. Who decides which income brackets pay lower fines? How will income be established? Will the program be implemented based on the honor system, or will tax returns be called for? Basing ticket fines on income could add an enormous burden to a parking enforcement office’s workload. Besides issuing and enforcing tickets, they will be required to find proof of a ticketed individual’s income in order to apply adjusted fees.
Even though I think we all deserve the same consequences, I wholeheartedly agree with creating a plan to help those with lower incomes – and anyone else, really – pay off tickets and maintain the use of their cars. What makes sense to me is to offer a way to pay that does not circumvent the application of reasonable consequences or create unjust punishments.
My family borrows dozens of library books each month, and we are really stupid about returning them. We get a receipt when we check out and a warning email two days before they’re due, but still rack up fines on the regular. I say “we,” but I mean my daughters and me, because my husband always turns in his books on time. He forgets things, but library book due dates are not one of them.
I take my checkbook to the library once a quarter and pretend it was all just a hilarious mix up. Something nice my library offers is a once a year forgiveness of fees. Ours is used up by March, but I’m grateful.
And sometimes we misplace a book. And by “we” I mean the 13-year-old whose room looks like a garage sale. I occasionally withhold privileges until she’s motivated to make the floor visible, but any improvement is short lived. And I’ve decided that her messy room is not the hill I want to die on.
When we misplace a book, our library offers a “hold” option wherein I agree I will keep looking for the book and they agree they will stop fining me until I find it (or a year passes, and then I must replace the book entirely). In this situation, my admission of guilt gets me lenience I truly appreciate.
I know library fines and parking tickets are not the same – and my ability to feed my children is not going to be affected by my inability to pay for late books. What I’m pointing out is that municipalities have options for making sure fair penalties do not become extreme punishments.
It is possible to make procedures for paying parking tickets more accommodating for people with lower incomes. Offer a first-time or once-a-year freebie. Provide discounts for payments made quickly. Create payment plans that can be applied immediately. But give everyone access to these breaks.
Encourage those with low incomes to park legally, and if they mess up, give them the opportunity to ask for lenience. Create, and make known, a simple procedure that prevents one ticket from becoming ten; that stops $50 in fines from becoming $500; that ensures ticket fines don’t simultaneously immobilize and impoverish those who are already struggling.