Note: This Speaking Out Essay appeared in the Sunday Democrat & Chronicle's Printed Edition
by Carla Palumbo and Ken Warner
It’s been almost six months since Democrat and Chronicle’s Unite Rochester Challenge competition brought together over 100 ideas from people in our community to combat poverty and racism.
We’re proud of the fact that our submission — “It’s a Crime to Be Poor” — was one of the top 10 finalists and that we got to present our idea to a distinguished panel of judges and the community at large.
Our idea was inspired by African-American writer James Baldwin who once said: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
Right here in Rochester City Court, the mandatory enforcement of State Vehicle and Traffic laws often has unintended consequences for families and the community. The administration of financial penalties and sentencing for infractions is a prime example of how minorities and poor people are unjustly targeted for extreme punishment.
Because of state mandates, City Courts are bound by strict regulations on unpaid fines that often leave judges no options but jail time and little leeway in either payment plans or alternative sentencing.
Unpaid fines multiply like ants at a picnic, and a ticket as harmless as a parking violation or an infraction like a broken tail light can eventually lead to suspension of a driver’s license or felonies resulting in jail time. Offenders end up losing jobs. Families break up. The consequences become an obstacle to future employment.
We proposed to advocate for a change in state law similar to what our neighbors to the west in Buffalo have already done — create their own process for handling these cases.
We didn’t win the competition — but we knew we had a good idea.
Since that, time, we’ve been talking to people throughout the community and we’re happy to report that the community listened. On Thursday morning, the Rochester City Council voted unanimously to send Home Rule Legislation to Albany to make it happen.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the City of Rochester will follow Buffalo’s lead by instituting our own City Traffic Violations Agency that will go far in eliminating the unintended consequences of current laws.
This is a great first step. We still have work to do to advocate for a change in state law allowing judges more flexibility to deal with other traffic issues such as Aggravated Unlicensed Operation. We will continue to work toward that change.
But, one thing is for sure, without the Democrat and Chronicle’s Unite Rochester Challenge, this may never have happened. We may not have won the $5,000 prize, but the community wins in ways that can’t be counted.
Carla Palumbo is President and CEO for Legal Aid Society of Rochester NY, and Ken Warner, who retired from UNICON as Executive Director in 2015, is a local writer and community activist.