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  1. Opinion

For Florida drivers, there has to be a better way than interminable license suspensions | Editorial

This is a small way to change a system that has large, underlying problems.
A woman enters a Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles driver's license service center, in Hialeah. [WILFREDO LEE | AP]

Two million people in Florida have a suspended driver’s license. More than three-quarters of the license suspensions issued two-to-four years ago were still in effect in October, largely because of unpaid fines and fees, not driving trouble. Now two state legislators have wisely proposed legislation that would create an affordable and consistent payment plan. This is a step in the right direction and a small way to change a system that has large, underlying problems.

Many of the people struggling with a suspended driver’s license never had a driving infraction. Take 32-year-old Matthew Holland: he was incarcerated at age 18 after breaking into cars to steal stereos for drug money. When he was released, he found himself unable to pay $3,000 in court fees — and he only had 45 days to pay them. That led to his license being suspended, an obstacle that has snowballed into a 10-year-long challenge.

The legislation would create a uniform payment plan for all 67 counties in Florida that would require clerks to set up monthly payment amounts of 2 percent of the person’s average monthly income or $10 a month, depending on which is more. Clerks could charge a one-time administrative fee, which would be no more than $5 for people who qualify for a public defender. It would also allow those who have had driver licenses suspended before July 1, 2020, only because of the failure to pay fines or other fees, to have their licenses reinstated with the payment of a reinstatement fee.

It’s no surprise that fines and fees for suspended driver’s licenses disproportionately affect poor people and people of color. In fact, black people have suspended driver’s licenses about 1.5 times the rate for the general population, according to a study by the nonprofit Fines and Fees Justice Center. The problem with fines and fees is they stack up: 22-year-old Patshawndria Ivey’s payment plan of $25 a month for a ticket when she was caught driving a friend’s car with expired tags turned into an almost $500 fine when she moved back to Florida from Georgia. Soon after, she was pulled over and arrested for driving with a suspended license. “Everybody can’t afford to pay a $500 ticket, you know,” she said.

The Florida County Clerks of Court opposes this proposed legislation because they estimate it will cause counties to lose millions in annual revenue. That doesn’t track with analyses from conservative think tanks such as the James Madison Institute and the Reason Foundation, which estimate that license suspensions for failure to pay actually cost Florida courts more than $40 million a year in the implementation of the system.

A suspended driver’s license is so much more than just that. It is often the only legal way to reach housing and jobs that can offer pathways to a new life for people stuck in a cycle of being charged payments they can’t afford. This legislation would end this harmful form of discrimination that largely affects poor people and people of color.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.