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Baltimore resident Jason Butler speaks about how he spent a month in jail over unpaid traffic fines. Attorney General Brian Frosh is pushing legislation to ban the state from jailing Marylanders over unpaid traffic fees.
Baltimore resident Jason Butler speaks about how he spent a month in jail over unpaid traffic fines. Attorney General Brian Frosh is pushing legislation to ban the state from jailing Marylanders over unpaid traffic fees. (Luke Broadwater)

Traffic fines are supposed to be a deterrent. Talk on a cellphone while driving, forget to use a turn signal when changing lanes or go too fast down a residential street and a cop can slap a driver with a fine. That fine is supposed to stop people from wanting to violate the law again.

Except it isn’t exactly working that way.

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There is a population of low income residents in the state who can’t afford the penalties. And they face a worse punishment — they can have their driver’s licenses suspended by the Motor Vehicle Administration. Not only do these drivers end up buried in debt, but they lose their licenses, which makes it harder for them to get to jobs they need to pay their debts. Many end up driving on a suspended license, hoping they don’t get caught. Drivers who do get caught can be arrested and jailed.

So much for deterring people from breaking the rules.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and a bipartisan group of lawmakers want to put an end to suspending driver’s licenses for traffic fines, a practice that essentially criminalizes the poor. It’s no different from fining the homeless for loitering when they have no place to go or placing high bails on low level crimes committed by people with not enough money.

Legislation pending in both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly would put an end to the practice in Maryland. The bill, which has the support of House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson, is something that we support.

People should not end up with arrest records for basic traffic violations. It is well documented that once a person enters the criminal justice system it is hard to get back on their feet. The state should instead work to keep people out of system. Mr. Frosh has said the bill could impact the lives of 30,000 people.

That’s not to say people should be allowed to disobey the rules. We certainly don’t want to promote a system of lawlessness. But courts should consider a person’s ability to pay certain penalties and fines. The legislation introduced on behalf of Mr. Frosh also allows for payment plans. We would just caution that the installment plans still have to be something that people can afford, or else we are just putting a band-aid on the problem.

If Maryland lawmakers pass the legislation, as they should, the state would be one of a few to do the right thing to stop targeting and punishing the poor. In 2017, 43 states, including Maryland, suspended licenses for outstanding court debt, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center. A recent analysis by the Harvard Criminal Justice Policy Program and Human Rights Watch Commission found that cities have become too dependent by such fines as the cost of running their criminal justice systems have grown. Ironically, the system has grown because of mass incarceration and over policing that has resulted in a disproportionate number of poor and black people behind bars.

The Washington D.C. Council unanimously approved legislation to block such suspension of licenses in 2018. The D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles suspended nearly 126,000 licenses between 2010 and 2017 because they failed to pay their traffic tickets, according to The Washington Post. A large majority were African Americans.

Also in 2018, a federal district judge ruled such a law in Tennessee violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Judge Aleta Trauger in her opinion said the law failed to consider that some people did not have the money to pay the debts, according to The New York Times. In other words, such fines shouldn’t be a one size fits all matter.

Maryland should act before it also ends up in court. Similar legislation introduced last year did not make it out of committee, and that should not be allowed to happen again. Hopefully, the backing of leadership will make it the priority it should be.

Mr. Frosh said during a recent press conference that such matters should be resolved civilly, not criminally. We couldn’t agree more. Traffic violations are a matter of public safety not criminal activity. In this case the punishment doesn’t fit the offense. That can and should be changed.

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