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Is it fair to suspend licenses for nonpayment of court debts?

Is the practice of suspending defendants' driver's licenses for nonpayment of criminal justice debt unfair to those who can't afford to pay? Does it actually make it harder for courts to collect that debt?

A recent report by the nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center says yes to both questions. Forty-three states, including Arizona, allow courts to suspend people's driver's licenses when they don't pay fines, regardless of whether they can afford to. That's unfair and unconstitutional, the report concludes. Moreover, it makes it much less likely the courts will get their money.

Worse, these policies are ubiquitous nationwide, despite "the growing consensus that this kind of policy is unfair and counterproductive," the report says.

"While wealthier drivers have little difficulty covering court debt, people living paycheck-to-paycheck with little or no savings and families to support may not be able to pay in a lump sum or consistently make payments on installment plans," it adds.

Arizona is one of the 43 states that allow license suspensions, although our policy is a little better than many. Suspension is not mandatory for nonpayment, but issued on a judge's discretion. However, our statute does not require the judge to consider the defendant's ability to pay, and the suspension can last indefinitely or until the full fine is paid.

In 19 states -- nearly 40 percent of the country -- the suspension for unpaid court debt is mandatory. Only four states require judges to consider the defendant's ability to pay or the "willfulness" of the nonpayment.

These policies effectively punish people for something other than doing something wrong. In the case of the poor punish the poor for an unpaid debt. Moreover, the punishment itself deprives many people of their ability to get to work, cutting them off from their jobs, the nonprofit points out. This is often true even when alternative transportation is freely available, because a valid driver's license is a requirement for many jobs.

Civil rights advocates have filed lawsuits challenging these statutes, and the Justice Department has weighed in on their side in at least one case. It issued a statement of interest in a Virginia challenge saying that drivers have a due process right to establish their inability to pay.

The Justice Department also said that, "in addition to being unlawful," the policies appear to be geared toward raising revenue rather than promoting public safety.

The Legal Aid Justice Center issued the report to urge states and municipalities to reconsider the justice and effectiveness of "license for payment" policies. It's time for Arizona to recognize the potential for unfairness and harm our policy allows.

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