Just the cost of a speeding ticket: How ticket prices open doors to jail cells

March 29, 2020 by Benjamin Kamelhar

by Neil Pladus

When a rich person is fined for a crime, the old adage has always been that the fine is “just the cost of a speeding ticket.” As currently framed, the adage makes a traffic ticket seem like a nominal inconvenience. But what is the cost of a traffic ticket?

When I was 19, I was cited for having an expired inspection sticker. I was working part-time at a liquor store while I was still in college. The $140 it cost was a little more than I had made that week. What it meant for me was that I had to borrow money from my mom to pay for my toll and gas money, but what it means for people living below the poverty line is dire. Just one ticket can create thousands in fines and countless arrests.[1]

Four years later, I was the one writing the tickets. As a police officer in suburban New Jersey, I never forgot what a ticket meant to 19-year-old me, but that did not change what it meant for others. I saw unpaid tickets become warrants, warrants become added court costs, and these warrants become jail time. If you had a warrant, you became more sought after by the police, more likely to receive more citations. The remedy was to incarcerate those who could not pay, a few days in jail penance for a few hundred dollars in unpaid fines. Often when someone I arrested was awaiting the local sheriffs’ department to transport them to jail, they would plead with me to lodge their money and other personal belongings at our police station because they knew that the county jail would take their money to offset the costs of their stay, a cost that has risen to around $1,000 per inmate, per week.[2]

A stint in jail will not absolve fines, but it will forever taint a resume. Certainly, the answer cannot be to just let offenders go. Traffic enforcement undoubtedly has its benefits.  What I propose is not radical nor is it profound. I propose that we lower the costs of traffic tickets. While this may make tickets even less of a deterrent for those with means, the privileged few are already undeterred. The cost we should worry about is moral. We should worry about depriving people of their liberty because of insurmountable ticket costs. We must lower the cost so that they are not such a burden on the already impoverished. Lower them so they are no longer a permanent condemnation, but “just the cost of a speeding ticket.”



[1]   See U.S. Dep’t of Justice Civil Rights Div., Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department 7 (Mar. 4, 2015) (A woman from Ferguson, Missouri was cited for improper parking.  “She received two citations and a $151 fine, plus fees.” Further, “[f]rom 2007 to 2014, the woman was arrested twice, spent six days in jail, and paid $550 to the court for the events stemming from this single instance of illegal parking.”).

[2]   See Molly Blinski, Cost of Incarceration:  South Jersey Jails by the Numbers, Press of Atlantic City (Sept. 5, 2018), https://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/news/cost-of-incarceration-south-jersey-jails-by-the-numbers/article_7ca40896-d67f-5b2f-9a06-a75e654aa2dc.html (“Cumberland County [Jail] may seen an increase in the yearly cost per inmate, from $52,545 to either $60,750 or $63,947,” but with the average yearly cost per inmate across the Country being $47,057.).