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Future of Warren's traffic court uncertain 

People in poverty often live on the edge of a cliff. One misstep can set off a chain of events that makes it hard to stop the downward slide, much less better their lives.

A prime example in the City of Rochester involves transportation and fines. Many residents can't afford to pay their traffic fines, which means the fees grow and people fall further and further behind. Their vehicles may get booted, and they could lose their licenses, too.

Part of the issue is the lack of flexibility in City Court, officials say.

"City Court, by state law, doesn't have the option of reducing the surcharge or giving a payment plan," says Carla Palumbo, CEO of the Legal Aid Society. "The town courts can. City courts don't have the power to do that."

Earlier this year, Mayor Lovely Warren announced that she wanted to create a city-operated traffic violations agency that would have the power to work out payment plans or let residents enter plea bargains on traffic tickets.

The city needs state legislation to create the agency, however, and the proposal didn't pass during the Legislature's last session. The Assembly approved it, but it never got a vote in the Senate.

City spokesperson Patrick Flanigan says he's not sure if the proposal will be reintroduced in the next session, which starts in January. But Warren is committed to giving city residents the same options that residents of towns and villages have, he says.

"The specific game plan is yet to be determined," he says.

One area where a city-operated traffic agency would help is with residents charged with driving without a license, Palumbo says. She's worked on this issue before.

Some people can't pay the fines, but they keep driving because their job and their well-being depend on it, she says. But eventually they could face a felony, she says.

"It all stems from, yes, they drove without having their license, but they lost their license because they couldn't pay their fine," Palumbo says. "It creates a debtors' jail, essentially. People that can't pay this stuff ending up in jail because life moves on and they've still got to do what they have to do for their families."

Aggravated unlicensed operation of vehicles is a significant problem in Rochester, with 1,310 tickets issued in 2015 and 913 through September 21 of this year, according to the police department.

Another option besides the traffic agency would be to change state law to give City Court more flexibility when it comes to traffic fines, Palumbo says.

She says she understands that some people will say that the government doesn't need to do anything; that the drivers deserve what they get for driving without a license.

"Yes, except for if they then lose their license and can't work, and they lose their job, and then they go on public assistance, doesn't that cost the community more?" she says.

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