Advocates with the Delaware Campaign to End Debtors’ Prison (CEDP) are celebrating a new law that will help restore driving permissions for people coming out of the criminal justice system. After nearly three years of lobbying lawmakers to make the change, HB 244 was approved last year and is now in effect.
“I was seeing loads of clients where I was representing them on driving on a suspended license cases, and the only reason their license was suspended was because they had unpaid fines and fees, often for low level offenses,” said Meryem Dede, who used to work as a criminal defense attorney with the public defender’s office. “They weren’t able to pay their fee as their licenses were being suspended by the court system.” Dede now is co-coordinator at CEDP and a staff attorney with the Debt Free Justice campaign.
The legislation, which was easily approved by the General Assembly last year, points to the damage that can be caused by state fees and fines assessed by the courts. The bill also eliminates fines and fees for children going through the criminal justice system. “This type of debt and the collateral consequences of suspending a driver’s license negatively impacts the rehabilitation of those in the criminal justice system,” the bill states. The new law, which took effect at the start of April, “prohibits a court from imposing a fine, fee, cost, or assessment on children without the means to pay them,” and also “provides the courts with the discretion to waive, modify, or suspend any fine, fee, cost, or assessment.”
“What a lot of people have been seeing or experiencing is that it’s been creating a cycle of poverty,” Dede said.
She said that when a license is suspended, it is difficult to, “do all of the basic things that we do and we’re dependent on motor vehicles for.” It’s especially harsh for those convicted of low level offenses. “There are lots of people who have had their driver’s licenses suspended for years that never served any jail time,” she said.
The charges for those on probation included administrative fees, as well as funding for volunteer fire companies. “Volunteer fire ambulance companies are really important. We want those, but they shouldn’t be funded off the backs of primarily poor people going through the criminal legal system,” Dede said.
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