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Is it fair to suspend your license for failure to pay a fine?

A new report by the nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center asks whether state policies that suspend driver's licenses for inability to pay fines are a good idea. Are these "license-for-payment" policies fair, or are they counterproductive and costly?

The report concludes that they are not only costly and counterproductive but also unfair and even unconstitutional in some cases. They take away something most people need in order to earn money -- a valid driver's license -- leading to long-term involvement in the criminal justice system. That's costly for the courts and community, effectively erasing any supposed benefit from having defendants "pay their way."

Moreover, these policies target the poor. In the large majority of states, including Massachusetts, no consideration is given to the defendant's ability to pay, which the Justice Department calls a due process right. This also results in disproportionate enforcement among traditionally disadvantaged groups.

"Most state statutes contain no safeguards to distinguish between people who intentionally refuse to pay and those who default due to poverty, punishing both groups equally harshly as if they were equally blameworthy," the Justice Center says.

Civil rights activists have filed suit in several states on constitutional grounds, claiming that these policies violate the Due Process and Equal Protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution by punishing people for being poor.

The most problematic aspects of these policies are 1) lack of alternative arrangements for those unable to pay; 2) the suspension being mandatory; 3) the suspension being indefinite with rules preventing reinstatement until payment is made in full.

According to the report, 43 states and the District of Columbia have these "license-for-payment" policies. Only four require judges to determine whether the defendant is unable to pay before issuing the suspension. In 19 states, the suspension is mandatory upon nonpayment of the court debt, and virtually all prevent courts from reinstating the license until payment is received. Massachusetts' policy contains all of these problems.

Do you think these policies are fair or effective? Should Massachusetts change its law?

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