In its one-day veto session, the General Assembly passed several major reforms that it couldn’t manage to resolve in its 45-day regular session.
But in solving one problem — the draconian practice of suspending driver’s licenses for people trying to pay court fees — it created another.
Or rather, it triggered a trap it had set within the language of the old legislation.
The legislation began with a reasonable premise: Offenders are supposed to pay their fines, their court costs and other fees associated with their cases; suspending their driver’s licenses was added as a penalty for failure to pay — and an incentive to obey.
But some people simply couldn’t pay, no matter how earnestly they tried. The reality is that, for many low-income Virginians who are struggling to make ends meet, even finding an extra few hundred dollars is an insurmountable hurdle.
And then the state confronted them with another hurdle. If they couldn’t pay, they then lost their licenses — which meant they couldn’t get to their jobs, which meant they couldn’t earn money, which meant they fell even further behind in their payments.
For some, it also meant they couldn’t get themselves or their children to doctor’s appointments — as was the case for defendants in a court challenge spearheaded by the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center. A judge issued a restraining order against the state Department of Motor Vehicles, prohibiting it from enforcing the penalty.
The issue already had gained legislators’ attention, and the court decision added fuel to a campaign to eliminate the problem at its source by repealing the flawed law. But the reform was killed in a House of Delegates subcommittee and never made it to a full vote.
Then came the follow-up session in which the General Assembly meets to approve amendments or override vetoes issued by the governor. Gov. Ralph Northam put the repeal legislation back into play by adding it as one of his budget amendments. That bypassed the usual committee process and presented the issue to the full legislature, which passed it.
Passed it … but without taking into account all its ramifications.
Inadvertently eliminated was what’s called the “reinstatement fee” — a fee all offenders have to meet when they pay off their court costs, not just offenders ensnared in the license revocation predicament.
And $100 of the fee goes to the Virginia Trauma Center Fund, which raises money for state trauma centers. By eliminating that fee as well, the approved amendment now creates an $11 million funding gap for the hospitals in the next fiscal year.
Gov. Northam says he’ll fix the problem by restoring the lost money in his next budget; the General Assembly also can restore the reinstatement fee to state law next year.
So let’s summarize the issue to this point: The license suspension law was well-intentioned but proved to impose unfair burdens on too many Virginians; as Mr. Northam said, it criminalized poverty. Eliminating the license suspension rule therefore was a good thing.
State support for trauma centers also was a good thing, providing funds for hospitals that deal with some of the most challenging medical cases in the commonwealth.
But here’s where the trap comes in: Using what is in effect a criminal penalty to generate revenue , not just to punish wrongdoers, is a very dangerous practice.
At worst, it creates the temptation to manipulate punishments deliberately to produce revenue, putting greed above justice.
At best, it contributes to misadventures such as that facing the commonwealth now — in which an effort to enhance justice inadvertently harmed hospitals, because the two were inextricably linked.
That the fee is a revenue-raising mechanism is suggested by the numbers themselves. The reinstatement fee for unpaid court fines and fees is $145 — with $100 for the trauma center fund and $45 for the Department of Motor Vehicles. The $45 likely reimburses the DMV for its administrative costs; the $100 is the money generated for hospitals.
It’s fair to charge processing costs. But it’s neither fair nor wise to impose an added penalty on ex-offenders, even if it’s just called a fee: The corrupting influence of money opens the door to miscarriages of justice.
Lawmakers should be free to do the right thing for the cause of justice without having to worry that it will be the wrong thing for hospital funding.