Program helps low-income drivers get suspended licenses back
Since 2009, Brenda Kennett has been watching the cost of a handful of minor traffic violations add up, reaching about $1,500 in fines and fees.
On Dec. 11, she brought her balance to zero and soon will get her license restored after paying just $100, thanks to a program aimed at helping low-income Vermont motorists.
She was among dozens who participated in License Restoration Day, which allowed motorists in Windsor County, Vermont, to have their driving privileges restored for a fraction of the amount they owe.
“If it wasn’t for this program, I wouldn’t be paying my tickets. I wouldn’t be able to afford it,” said Kennett, 51, of North Springfield, Vermont, who said her infractions included speeding and driving with a suspended license.
The program is especially for drivers who cannot afford to pay their traffic fines and end up in a cycle of law-breaking because they must drive for work or other reasons. They sometimes are arrested and re-arrested for driving with a suspended license.
The Windsor County license restoration program, which drew more than 250 motorists out of about 1,400 who were eligible, is the second held in Vermont. An earlier one in Chittenden County helped about 1,200 northwestern Vermont residents clear up more than 6,700 tickets, and it brought in almost $150,000 to the state.
The program allows people to pay $25 per outstanding ticket. More serious traffic offenses, such as driving under the influence, are not eligible.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan said the program helps break a cycle of poverty and lawbreaking worsened by the reality that many violators need to drive.
“If you look around the room today, if you talk to these folks, they are living on the margins of poverty. They want to do the right thing,” said Donovan, who traveled from Burlington to White River Junction on Dec. 11. “We’ve got to make it available and possible for them to do the right thing. Twenty-five dollars does do that.”
Anyone with outstanding fines can participate, but the program is aimed at people who are likely to have trouble paying their fines. Windsor County State’s Attorney Michael Kainen speculated that most who participated couldn’t afford to pay what they owed.
“If you are minimum wage, a single mother who gets a stop sign ticket for 150 bucks, you might not be able to pay that and those people go under suspension,” he said. “And then in order to get to work, get to day care, whatever it is, the person drives,” risking getting another ticket.
“At a certain point it becomes hopeless,” he said.
Kainen said state law needs to change to address the problem.
“The real objective ought to be to have licenses in peoples’ hands so that they’re driving legally,” Kainen said. “The criminal justice system is overwhelmed, both prosecution and defense.”
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