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Landmark Rubicon Lawsuit Settled, Paves Way for Fair Treatment of Low-Income Drivers

By Jonathan Bash August 8, 2017

Solano County adopts model policies that lessen the burden of traffic fines and fees           

                              

San Francisco, CA - A settlement was reached today in the first lawsuit in California to challenge the suspension of driver’s licenses as a means of collecting unpaid traffic fines. The lawsuit was originally filed on June 15, 2016 against Solano County Superior Court, challenging the court’s practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of people who could not afford the astronomical price of traffic tickets.

“Having to choose between food and a traffic fine is not a choice at all," said Jane Fischberg, President and CEO of Rubicon Programs, a plaintiff in the suit. “This settlement gives us hope that we are finally moving away from unjust systems that criminalize poverty. We applaud the Solano Court’s good faith effort to make the system more equitable – so that everyone in our communities has an opportunity to achieve economic mobility."

Prior to the lawsuit, the Court routinely failed to notify traffic defendants of their right to demonstrate they were low-income and unable to pay the fines – which the suit alleged was unlawful. The Court also lacked a mechanism for low-income drivers to seek a reduction in the fine or an alternative to payment based on their poverty.

Today, the parties filed a settlement that achieves the goals of the lawsuit. Under the terms of the settlement, the Court will notify every traffic defendant of their right to be heard regarding their “ability to pay.” The Court will update all notifications to traffic defendants, including its website, the oral advisements provided by traffic court judges, and the “notice of rights” handout given to all traffic defendants. The new notices explain the traffic defendants’ rights to ask the Court for a lower fine, a payment plan, or community service if they are indigent.

Further, the Court agreed to change its procedures for assessing a defendant’s ability to pay. For traffic defendants who are homeless, receive public benefits or are low income, the Court has agreed to consider alternative penalties that do not involve payment of a monetary fine – such as community service.

"We hope that Solano's reforms will be a model for other counties to follow," said Rebekah Evenson, Director of Litigation and Advocacy at Bay Area Legal Aid. "We laud the Solano County Superior Court and Presiding Judge Fracchia for working with us to reform their traffic system in a way that treats low-income drivers fairly and equitably."

“We appreciate that the governor and legislature recently put an end to the harmful practice of using license suspension to punish low-income people who can’t afford to pay costly tickets,” said Christine Sun, Legal Director at the ACLU of Northern California. “Now we’d like to see counties across California follow Solano County’s example and address the exorbitant traffic fines and fees structure that plunges people into a cycle of poverty.”

A 2017 study by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, "Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic Court System," showed that Californians pay some of the highest fines and fees in the country—which can devastate the lives of Californians with lower incomes.

People of color also bear a disproportionate amount of this burden. The study’s Bay Area data revealed that African-Americans are four to sixteen times more likely to be booked into county jail on a charge related to inability to pay a citation. Because of over-policing in communities of color and racial profiling, African-American and Hispanic individuals are more likely to receive traffic tickets than are white and Asian individuals and are far more likely to be cited solely for driving with a license that was suspended for failure to pay or appear in traffic court.

The lead plaintiff in the suit, Rubicon Programs v. Superior Court, is Rubicon Programs, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive employment, career, financial, legal and health & wellness services to thousands of low-income people across the Bay Area. Additional plaintiffs in the suit include the ACLU of Northern California, and Henry Washington, a low-income Hayward resident whose license was suspended because he could not pay a “fix-it” ticket. Plaintiffs were represented by:

Read the final settlement here.

Media Contacts:

 

Sarah Williams, Attorney, swilliams@rubiconprograms.org or (510) 412-1763

Jonathan Bash, Communications Manager, jonathanb@rubiconprograms.org or (510) 231-3993

 

Linda Kim, Bay Area Legal Aid, Lkim@baylegal.org or (510) 250-5218

Bethany Woolman, ACLU of Northern California, bwoolman@aclunc.org or (415) 621-2493

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Trading Yin for Yang: Mario’s Story

By Jonathan Bash August 7, 2017

Mario, a member of Rubicon Programs' July 2016 cohort, always intended to live a good life, but the things he wanted always seemed out of reach. Entering adulthood in a resource-deprived community, Mario felt that the only viable path to success came from “the dark side.”

“I got caught up dealing drugs,” he says.  He was able to make enough to pay the bills and get what he thought he wanted. “I was ‘street famous’ and feeling pretty content. But I began to stagnate, physically, mentally and spiritually. And in the end, I became my own best customer.”

He spent more than a decade in and out of jail, fell behind on his child support and lost touch with his family. When he hit rock bottom, his life until then came into focus, and he thought about all the time he lost not being a productive citizen. That day, he made a decision to learn from his mistakes, grow as a person and embrace the “light side, the good side.”

His neighbor, a former Rubicon client, suggested he look into Rubicon Programs. At first he was skeptical, “what could happen in just a few weeks?” But soon, he crossed the threshold and realized that he could turn his life around, and that Rubicon’s staff would be sticking with him for the foreseeable future.

“All the workshops challenged me and helped me grow. Each day I chipped off a bit of the block of what they offered. I met with all of the coaches. Jessica stayed on me and made sure I followed through. Pat, Reggie, Max, Dalia, Ken, Porschea, Lila, even the office staff, all were instrumental to my success. ”

Now, one year later, Mario works with LiUNA!, the laborers union in San Francisco. The job, which he secured after capitalizing on a few community connections, earns $30 an hour. He now has enough to move closer to his mother and his kids, own a reliable car and save for a rainy day, while also enjoying the good things in life. He has paid off his child support, rebuilt relationships and found stability for the first time in decades.

He’s proud of the work that he does, building public parks, sidewalks and hospitals. And he hopes to continue to grow in his career. He plans to learn how to use new types of modern equipment and develop brand new skills in his field. “I want to be a real asset to a company,” he says.

He also wants to give back. He’s joined Rubicon’s Men’s Group, where he meets every week to share his success with new participants. “I’m glad I am able to be an inspiration to others.” He tells everyone he runs into, especially if they’re down on their luck, “go over to Rubicon.”

He says that he keeps coming back because it keeps him focused, and keeps him grounded. “I’ve been able to get everything I need with Rubicon. And if they don’t have it, they know how to help me find it.”

“I’m proud that I am able to be where I am at this stage in my life. I’ve overcome some serious obstacles. It’s been a struggle. But I’ve conquered them all, thanks to Rubicon.”

Learn more about Rubicon Programs' career services and income curriculum here or donate today to support our work.

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Burned by a Zip Code: Part 1

By Jonathan Bash July 25, 2017

Can your zip code determine your destiny?

For William – a product of Oakland – the answer most certainly is yes. But that doesn’t mean change can’t happen.

In the early 1980s, William’s family left Greenville, NC to earn a better living and escape the racial tensions of the South. He, along with his mother and father, settled in Oakland, following his great aunt and uncle’s footsteps. His college-educated father was able to get a job earning a decent living. 

Unfortunately, the new neighborhood introduced a host of unforeseen problems. At the time, race wasn’t one of them. 

A New Normal

“Growing up, I didn’t know what racism was. In Oakland's inner city, kids of all races spoke the same, whether they were Black, White, Mexican or Asian. We all were relatively poor and we all accepted each other,” says William. Eventually, his opinion evolved as he grew older and realized that racism was all around him, especially in law enforcement and the built environment

“My dad was a country boy trying to raise a kid in one of the most notorious cities in the country,” says William.  While his father tried his best, he couldn’t help his son navigate a community reeling from the introduction of crack cocaine, the emergence of HIV/AIDS and institutions that preyed upon people struggling in low-income communities.

These were conditions that opened the doors for opportunistic companies to prey on the desperation and isolation of people in neighborhoods like his. Instead of banks, they had check cashing and payday loan shops that charged 450% APR. Instead of grocery stores, convenience stores offered junk food, malt liquor and flavored tobacco.

Ultimately, adopting a life of crime was viewed to be a perfectly acceptable alternative to this bleak existence.  

According to William, “it’s hard telling a kid to do the right thing when they can go outside and see kids barely even seventeen with rolls of cash, gold chains and a Mercedes-Benz with a steering wheel on the wrong side. You knew girls thought those guys were successful, so you felt you needed to follow their example.” 

Opportunity Lost

At the age of 13, William was discovered by the owner of the local football team who noticed him playing with his friends. He was offered a spot on the team, on sight. This could have been his path out of the neighborhood – he loved sports – but he couldn’t help but fall back into the trap set for him by his zip code.

“I started getting in trouble around that time,” he says. “I was first brought to juvenile hall at 14. I was in custody every year since. Nothing changed. No one like me helped get me back on track.”

Things only went downhill from there. Once a legal adult, he was arrested and sentenced to state prison – twice by the age of 21.

“One night while I was in San Quentin, back in 1999, a man was executed,” says William. “I looked out the window and watched it rain from my cell that day. Three years later, I was fighting my own capital punishment case. That’s when I knew I had to make my own change.”

Over the next four years, William fought for his life, and at last reached a deal: nine more years in prison.

Phoenix Rising

William used the next nine years to take advantage of every available resource that could transform his life. He got his GED and took college courses. He studied law textbooks and enrolled in computer classes. Soon enough, he was tutoring his fellow inmates and teaching his own GED classes. He even earned a paralegal certificate. 

“I had a friend on the outside. I kept telling him, ‘when I get home, I want my own apartment, I want to do my own thing. I am not going to go back to a life of crime. I have to have a purpose other than this.’ So, I made a conscious decision to seek out anyone or anything that could help me out.”

His friend had an idea: connect him with a man named Reggie Boyer, an Impact Coach at Rubicon Programs in Richmond. They clicked. From that day on, William called Reggie all the time. 

“Reggie didn’t think I was helpless. He laughed with me, connected with me and understood what I was going through. He wasn’t in the judgement business, he was in the assistance business.”

Thanks to his faith, good works and Reggie’s encouragement, William gained early release. “I was blessed to get out 13 years, 2 months and 2 days into a 15-year sentence.”

STORY CONTINUED IN PART 2 OF “BURNED BY A ZIP CODE.” 

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Burned by a Zip Code: Part 2

By Jonathan Bash July 25, 2017

This is part 2 of a 2 part series profiling William, a Rubicon Programs client who rose from a life of crime in Oakland to a new life, escaping the trappings of his zip code. Click here to read part 1.

 

Crossing the Rubicon

Once released from prison, William enrolled in Rubicon Programs’ Foundations Workshop

“I walked through Rubicon’s front door and sat down with these two balding black men – Reggie and a guy named Ron Thomas. They spoke my language. They could’ve been me in 20 years; they both were incarcerated and turned their lives around.”

For weeks, he sat in class from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., drove to work in Sacramento, labored from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., and then turned around to get to bed back in Richmond by 1 a.m. All the while, he wore an ankle monitor that tracked his every move.

Thanks to the curriculum and ongoing coaching by Rubicon’s dedicated career, finance and wellness coaches, he was able to forge lifelong friendships, find an affordable apartment, start to build his credit and discover that he could build a real career – not just get a job.

Soon, he met with one of Rubicon’s Staff Attorneys, Sarah Williams. He noticed a copy of “Practices and Procedures” on her desk – the lawyer’s bible. This got them talking about his interest in a legal career. 

“Sarah suggested that I go work for the Public Defender’s Office. I never thought that was on the table, but sure enough it was. I got an email from her a few weeks later. A position opened up.”

He then met with Rubicon’s employment coaches. They walked him through his resume, helped him write a cover letter and taught him all the essentials he didn’t even know existed.

On Sarah’s referral, he applied for a position working for the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Proposition 47 Reentry Coordinator, Ellen McDonnell, and supervisor Jonathan Laba. A few days later, he got a call back. He got the job – one with a real career pathway as a legal clerk, paralegal – or something even greater.

“One of the attorneys there, Ali Saidi – a great friend – has got me thinking about maybe running for city council. I don’t know if that’ll happen, but I do know I want to give back to my community.”

The Bigger Picture

According to William, poverty is the end result of many disparate factors. An impoverished community with few resources. A lack of social support. The influence of drugs. And macroeconomic changes out of any one person’s control.

“They took away Oakland’s biggest employer, the military base. That was the beginning of the end of Black advancement,” he says. “You still had good people despite the crack epidemic – but they had jobs with the base. When it left, they lost everything, and everyone who supplied their groceries or worked in nearby businesses lost everything. It rippled throughout the community.”

William asks, “Why did this particular base close?” Poverty doesn’t happen by coincidence. Many times, it is by design. 

“There’s not just one system put in place to keep minorities, and specifically black people, in poverty,” he says. “Unaffordable housing pushes us out of our homes. Police brutality kills hundreds of young black men, and we see no repercussions. Officials pick winners and losers. And society puts over 44,000 barriers on a formerly incarcerated person.”

He says that these societal pressures take away hope. “And without hope, you lose everything.”

Bringing Hope Back

With Rubicon, William now has more hope and resources, and not just hope for himself, but for his community. He hopes that we can repeal mandatory minimum laws, end three strikes, reform the criminal justice system and build more affordable housing. 

He thinks these changes will require new leaders “who actually go into our community, who actually talk to the homeless, and the hopeless, and honestly ask us ‘how can I help?’.”

Will William be one of these new leaders? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, Rubicon Programs will continue to support him and thousands of others just like him.

“When I walk into Rubicon, I get a genuine hug and a high-five. And that’s for everyone who enters these doors,” he says. 

“It’s like being inducted into a second family. But a family that does everything with you… if you’re willing to do the work.”

"If you take away jobs and schools, and you replace them with guns and drugs, it’s a recipe for disaster."

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Rubicon’s Young Professionals Board

By Lisa Dyas July 19, 2017

 

The Young Professionals Board raises awareness and resources to help meet the needs, address the challenges and uncover the untapped potential of our neighbors living in poverty. Join us to meet other young professionals with a commitment to equity for East Bay communities.  

 

OUR FOUNDING YEAR
In its first year, we will come together to introduce Rubicon's mission to a new generation of professionals who will help us achieve our vision of an East Bay without poverty. Together we will: 


EDUCATE
Learn about the challenges facing our neighbors living in poverty, and how Rubicon partners with them to find solutions.

SUPPORT
YPB members will harness their creativity to increase awareness of Rubicon and develop critical resources to support our mission. 

ACT
The YPB will produce a signature event that connects young professionals who share our vision in conjunction with our annual fundraising event, East Bay State of Mind.
 

JOIN US!

Job Description>>

Application>>

Brochure>>

Questions? Alex Pfeifer-Rosenblum, Development Manager

 

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