Getting a traffic ticket can sometimes mean choosing between paying the fine and paying for groceries, says Sarah Couture of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

Debt driven

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By
Cindy Marie Jenkins

Contributing Writer

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

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woodleywonderworks, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Getting a traffic ticket can sometimes mean choosing between paying the fine and paying for groceries, says Sarah Couture of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

Say you’re cruising down Dillard Street, on your way to meet up with friends in downtown Winter Garden when you see flashing red and blue lights in your rearview mirror. An officer pulls you over and writes a ticket for that broken tail light you’ve been meaning to get fixed. You drive away, making a mental note to pay the fee online once you get home.


Sounds annoying, but easy enough, right? Get a ticket, pay the fine. But for 1 in 7 Central Floridians already struggling with food insecurity, receiving a traffic ticket could mean making a tough choice between paying the fine or putting food on the table.


An initial traffic citation may not seem costly, starting at $50 for a speeding ticket in a school zone. But, for families who budget to the penny, late fees, which start accruing after 30 days, can lead even low-cost tickets to balloon up to hundreds of dollars, explained Sarah Couture, Florida state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC), which advocates for ending unjust court debt.  


Plus, if a ticket isn’t paid after 60 days, the Department of Motor Vehicles will suspend a motorist’s driver’s license. Driving on a suspended license could lead to still more fines if the driver is pulled over yet again.


Financial problems can get compounded when people need to pay to enroll in traffic courses to regain their licenses or they simply relocate, which can delay delivery of debt notices. Courts are required to send notices to the last address on file, and it's up to the driver to ensure the court has their correct address, according to Couture. 


“Fines and fees in the criminal justice system are steep,” said Couture. "Oftentimes when someone is assessed court fines and fees, they have to make choices between paying that debt so they can keep their license valid and necessities like food, electrical bills, etc.”


In 2017, the FFJC created detailed maps showing that 62 percent of Orange County license suspensions were related to unpaid court debt. At the same time, utilizing data from the United Way’s ALICE report on the working poor, FFJC estimated that a family of four, with two kids and two working parents making the median wage of $17.62/hour, would have about $614 left over each month for groceries, utilities and other necessities. Court debt can eat into that, Couture says.  


While the state doesn’t have statistics on the connection between license suspensions and participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the federal food stamp program that is administered by the state Department of Children and Families – Couture points to this survey from justice advocacy group Alabama Appleseed to help understand the picture in Florida. 


In that survey, she said, “80 percent of people with court debt cut back on basic needs like food, medical bills, and more just to pay down their debt.” In addition, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they got food assistance or money from a faith-based charity or church, which they wouldn’t have needed were it not for their court debt.


It's not hard to see how similar situations could play out in Orange County where more than 191,000 individuals – including one in five children – are food insecure, according to Second Harvest Food Bank. This means that at times there’s not enough food to feed everyone in the household or the available food lacks nutritional value. Research has shown that households with children tend to experience more food insecurity than households without, a figure that has tripled to 29.5 percent during the pandemic.


“The reality is that you have a lot of people who are considered middle-class living paycheck to paycheck and relying on services, especially right now, because of inflation,” Couture said.


Reduced or free breakfasts and lunches served at school help many Orange County families close the meal gap. Lora Gilbert, Orange County Public Schools’ (OCPS) senior director of food and nutrition, told ClickOrlando that 75 percent of OCPS students were eligible for free or reduced lunches in 2021.


School is out now, but fortunately meals will still be served. Here’s how to find them this summer. 


Summer Meals

Throughout June and July, OCPS will provide some meals for kids and teens 18 and under at select public libraries (June 6 to July 29) and area schools (May 31 at limited sites; all sites June 6 to July 31).


Ocoee

Citrus Elementary School, 87 N. Clarke Rd.

Ocoee Elementary School, 400 S. Lakewood Ave.

Ocoee High School, 1925 Ocoee Crown Point Pkwy.

Ocoee Middle School, 300 S. Bluford Ave.

Thornebrooke Elementary School, 601 Thornebrooke Dr.


Windermere

Gotha Middle School, 9155 Gotha Rd.

Horizon West Middle School, 8200 Tattant Blvd.

Keene's Crossing Elementary, 5240 Keene's Pheasant Dr.

Sunset Park Elementary School, 12050 Overstreet Rd.

Windermere High School, 5523 Winter Garden Vineland Rd.


Winter Garden

Bridgewater Middle School, 5600 Tiny Rd.

Dillard Street Elementary School, 311 N. Dillard St.

ESE Special Hearts Farm, 1101 E. Maple St.

Horizon High School, 10393 Seidel Rd.

Independence Elementary, 6255 New Independence Pkwy.

Lake Whitney Elementary, 1351 Windermere Rd.

Lakeview Middle School, 1200 W. Bay St.

Maxey Elementary School, 602 E. Story Rd.

Summerlake Elementary School, 15450 Porter Rd.

Sunridge Elementary School, 14455 Sunridge Blvd.

Sunridge Middle School, 14955 Sunridge Blvd.

Tildenville Elementary School, 1221 Brick Rd.

Water Springs Elementary, 16000 Water Springs Blvd.

Water Springs Middle School, 10393 Seidel Rd.

West Orange High School, 1625 Beulah Rd.

Whispering Oaks Elementary, 15300 Stoneybrook West Pkwy.


Summer Break Spot, funded by the Florida Department of Agriculture, will also offer free breakfasts, snacks, lunches and dinners for kids and teens 18 and under. Text “food” or “comida” to 304-304 for locations. Ocoee’s Christian Service Center serves free lunches weekdays 11a.m. to 12 p.m. at 300 West Franklin Street.

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