Synthesizing design research on traffic court redesign

A report from our ongoing project on Traffic Court redesign.

Read our later reports on the prototypes that we created, and the community testing of them.


This past week and weekend, we ran our first half of a 2-part intensive course, Design for Justice: Fines, Fees, and Bail after Ferguson. We are tackling the (now infamous) way courts charge people high, punishing amounts of money for traffic tickets and other small infractions — and how these charges spiral into huge debts, suspension of driver’s license, and possible imprisonment, loss of employment, and poverty.

The class is taught with participating partners from the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association, the National Center for State Courts, the California Judicial Council, and the East Bay Community Legal Clinic.

Each of these stakeholders has an interest in reforming the way courts charge people money, and has some kind of work or task force that has recommended new rules, tools, and strategies to reform the system. In the class, we are taking their preliminary work, and applying a research-prototype-test design process to create some possible pilots for them.

Why this problem?

As courts and legislatures have steadily raised the amounts of fees, penalties, and surcharges required of people who have been given tickets, there is increasing scrutiny about these practices — and their implications for systemic poverty, racism, and access to justice.

Particularly after the Department of Justice’s report that covered court practices in Ferguson, Missouri, that resulted in high amounts of fines and fees targeting poor black people, there is growing momentum to reform this system. The DOJ pointed out how Ferguson municipal courts and law enforcement use fines and fees for the enrichment of the government at the expense of the people, especially poor and minority people.Since then, there have been more reports, task forces, and even a John Oliver piece on the problematic court fines and fees system. (See lots of these materials on our class site). Our class aimed to take the analysis and proposals coming out of this recent work, to then think about what can actually be built, launched, and tested to improve the system.

The Multi-Stakeholder, Partner-Student Approach of the Class

It was not a typical course, in that it integrated students and experts in equal participation. Rather than having external partners separated out, we had four different partner groups (each representing a different perspective and set of stakeholders in the challenge area) as part of our design work and teams.

We had students from the Law School, School of Education, Product Design, and Business School. We also had designers and innovation strategists from external companies like Google, SAP, YouTube, and the local NPR-affiliate KQED.

Unlike some of our other classes, the primary purpose of this type of course is not just educating students in the basics of the design process. Rather, we focused the class more on implementation, and building multi-stakeholder momentum around changing the broken system of fines and fees.

The Process We Used

We followed a design process, but with more research and curation of possible pathways before hand. The teaching team researched what the current proposals and solutions are, in order to help the participants figure out where there are gaps, things to build from, or otherwise.

We found four main categories of solution-types for court fines and fees: legal and court rule changes; new services; new tools; and better guidance regarding best practices and legality.

Better Guidance solution examples:

  • Dear Colleague letter from DOJ to local courts, instructing them on what practices are unconstitutional
  • Resource Center for courts, from National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail
  • Education via Webinars, conferences, commissions

New Rules, Legislation, and Policy solution examples:

  • Reduce fees and fines
  • Prevent taking away of driver’s license
  • Prevent imprisonment for debts
  • More oversight of municipal judges, collection of data, standardization of practices

New Services and Events solution examples:

  • Driver’s License restoration day in Vermont
  • California Traffic Amnesty Program
  • Stand Down: dismissal of veterans’ court debt
  • Community Service in place of fines

Smart Tools solution examples:

  • Ability to pay calculators (CA, MI, WA, etc)
  • Paper/digital Bench Cards to educate judges + court personnel
  • Online traffic ticket resolution systems (Matterhorn in Michigan and Ohio)
  • Self-assessment tools (NCSC CourTools)
  • User presentation of inability to pay (CourtHack)
  • User management of court process (CourtHack)

Our Challenge Briefs

We also worked with our partners to define 3 initial challenge briefs, to start directing the teams towards areas for improvement. These were still fairly broad, but focused in on particular stakeholder: the defendant, service providers, or the court.

We presented the problem area and the landscape in our initial meeting on Thursday evening, and then had our participants talk through what challenge they were most interested in, and what framings and questions they had to begin with. Small teams formed to do the field work the next day. And the experts were able to go in deep, with explanations about why the system is the way it is.

On our second day, we went to Alameda County’s Traffic Court, to observe the clinic that the EBCLC runs in a court room there, and then the traffic court that is held later in the morning. Our team interviewed and observed the many different people involved — the defendants, lawyers, paralegals, clerks, commissioners, info desk staffers, and more. We watched the full session of court, and then also got in-depth debriefs with various people — who walked through what they observed and what they thought we should work on.

In addition, we had a CEO of a California county court system come explain the entire system of how fines and fees work in California — including how the amounts got raised so high, where all the money goes, and why it is so hard to get the system changed (hint: it means taking money away from existing government agencies, who want court fines and fees revenue for their budget).

On the third day of the sprint, we came together to do more traditional design lab work — debriefing from our discovery work, choosing a specific opportunity or person’s need to focus on, and then creating quick prototypes to share and vet with each other.

After this sprint, we’ll spend this month working to refine the prototypes, so that we can test them later in May. We will run a parallel sprint at the end of the month, in which we test and refine the concepts that emerged in the first round.

Concepts that emerged

1. Interactive Ability Pay Process

This prototype is aimed toward the courts and the judiciary, who are currently having to grapple with rules changes that allow any person, anywhere in the process of dealing with fines and fees, to request an “Ability to Pay’ assessment. For the first time in California, a defendant in traffic court can ask a commissioner, a clerk, a collections agency, or any other representative of the system for a reduction based on their financial situation.

How courts will implement this process isn’t totally set yet — from (1) how people can get this request for an Ability to Pay assessment made, (2) what steps, forms, and hearings they’ll have to do, and (3) how they’ll be able to present proof, documents, and other evidence to support their financial situation.

One group is prototyping a user-centered tool and process for Ability to Pay requests — hoping to define a model that California courts (or beyond) might adapt to they local jurisdiction. As the court rule changes, this is a ripe time for guidance about this new process can be rolled out so that it is intuitive, supportive, and empowering for defendants.

2. Immediate Ticket Resolution tool

Another prototype proposed was a way for a person to more immediately deal with a ticket — so that they would not have to deal with it later, and then possibly get punished if they forgot about the court hearing or other deadline. It would be a way to interact straight with the ticket, and then automatically either write a letter (so as to get their arguments or negotiation done in paper, without having to go to court), pay the fine, or otherwise take action.

The idea is that the lag in-between getting a ticket and then dealing with it is part of the problem that results in failures to appear and all the penalties and harm that arise from it. If we can get immediate action, at the moment of the ticketing, then we can help people move on and avoid processes that seem built for them to fail.

3. Guide Blast

A third concept was to create a set of guides for defendants, that could lay out options, process, and best practices for them. The goal is to create content, visuals, and other assets that can be adapted to multiple formats and stakeholders.

For example, we might create business cards with key essential right information and magic words to say. Then we might make brochures with more details about what to expect and how to be strategic. We can make them large maps as well, to hang up in courts or other community centers. Finally, we’d make them available digitally, whether through a website, text, or an app.


An advocacy group’s version of the guides would have more strategy, a court’s version of it would be more a straight representation of the process. We would make the templates and basic content, with the eye for customization. But we hope this is a common point of action for both courts and advocates — all of them are interested in more prepped defendants.

These guides would be educational and empowering. They would give transparency about what to expect, and a sense of how best to behave to make sure they don’t end up in bad situations (like with failure to appear, failure to pay, or not taking full advantage of the new rule changes around Ability to Pay).

4. Community Service Simplified System

The final proposal took on a particular part of the court fines and fees system: the way in which people can avoid part of the fine by doing community service instead. Currently, the Alameda court uses a 3rd party provider to collect service opportunities, schedule them, and verify the completion of service work. This is often paper-based, particularly the verification of the work done, so it often ends up failing — and people don’t get the proper credit for work they have done, and must do it again.

The proposal here is for the court to create a digital strategy around tracking service done and verifying it. Rather than using paper, it could be done through electronic confirmations, straight into the case management system. This way, there would be less chance for paper to get lost or otherwise screw up people’s verification.

The system could also allow the person to see opportunities, schedule their work, and track their completion. They’d have transparency of the process, and more ability to get the work done.

Big takeaways

Aside from the specific prototypes we’ll be building, our class also came to some larger conclusions and insights about the system and how to change it.

Procurement has social justice implications — need for better 3rd party vendors
How courts work with 3rd party providers is dysfunctional. These providers fail to provide prompt, transparent access to information about cases, fines, and methods to resolve them. For example, once a court transfers a fine/fee to Alliance One for collection, the public and lawyers are unable to see any information about the status of this debt, how much it is, what is happening with it.

Second, these providers charge high fees to the end-user, the customers, that are out of line with the action being performed.

For example, to sign up for a payment plan (because you are unable to pay) you have to pay a fee. To sign up to do community service (because you are unable to pay) you have to pay a fee. To pay with a credit card, you have to pay an enormously high fee.

The contracts that the court strikes with these providers do not make enough demands of them, to provide efficient, transparent, and affordable services. Those managing procurement and vendor relationships should follow key, value-based principles as government servants. Primarily, procurement contracts should follow key values: to protect people’s dignity, to give them transparent, instant access to their case information, and to combat poverty rather than exacerbate it.

The Tension between Equity and Efficiency

Most people in the system just want their case to be over. It is similar to the wider criminal justice system, and what leads to people pleading guilty just to have the process be over. People came to traffic court just wanting to pay as least as possible and get out. The judge wants to keep her calendar tight and be over with it.

Judicial Empathy and Representativeness

Another theme was the need for culture shifts in courts, that treat people with greater dignity, and with less of a ‘blame and scold’ attitude. The paternalistic approach, of “why people can’t get their lives together to come to court and make payments perpetuates a system that is unjust and exacerbates poverty, particularly along racial lines. Some of the concepts discussed were around culture-change modules, that would change how judges are s3elected (to be more representative of the community they are serving) — or in training them in empathy and personal understandings of the people they are serving.

Shock the System vs. Patch the System

A final theme (if not the most pronounced tension) of the class was what magnitude of prototype to pursue. If we conclude that the system of court fines and fees, paid by poor minorities to fund the government (rather than taxes or other revenue) is unfair — should our work be focused on fundamentally dismantling this system, or should it be focused on making it better for defendants in the near term? Meaning, should we be building prototypes to shock and explode the system, or to help people get through the existing system a little better?

This tension certainly has not been resolved in our class, but at least we were conscious of it — in part thanks to our various partners, who take different stances on this question. We noticed that the design sprint lends itself to the ‘patching the system’ approach, because these types of interventions seem more ‘prototype’-able. They are easier to envision, plot out, and scope down. Larger ‘fundamentally change the system’ prototypes are about complex policies, law suits, culture changes, and incentive structures. Those types of interventions do not lend themselves to easy prototyping — but that is what we are trying to figure out. What kinds of design methods and models can we be using to prototype these?

We will publish more about our prototypes, findings, and possible pilots later this month, with our next sprint. Until then — please send on your thoughts, feedback, and prototype ideas for making the court system better. And if you’re interested in participating in the end of May sprint, let us know!