Kansas license suspension reforms stumble in Legislature

In this Friday, May 7, 2021, photo Kansas House Judiciary Committee Chair Fred Patton,...
In this Friday, May 7, 2021, photo Kansas House Judiciary Committee Chair Fred Patton, R-Topeka, speaks on his cellphone during a break in the House's work at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Patton is concerned that proposals to end the state's practice of suspending drivers licenses for unpaid fines would allow people to escape punishment for traffic violations. (AP Photo/John Hanna)((AP Photo/John Hanna))
Updated: May. 29, 2021 at 4:07 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Supreme Court staff stepped in this spring to oppose legislation meant to address issues surrounding drivers license suspensions for unpaid traffic fines, an issue pushed by activists for racial justice and the poor nationwide.

Some measures to address the issue passed and became law. But other efforts to eliminate some fees and to replace some fines with community service stalled after a court official told lawmakers that collecting fewer dollars through reinstatement fees would threaten the courts’ ability to remain open and pay employees. Some advocates think that’s the problem: The court system is overly reliant on impoverished and minority populations for funding.

“The system is formulated to thrive off the backs of poor people,” said Sheila Officer, chairwoman of the Racial Profiling Advisory Board of Wichita. She said states including Washington and California have passed laws ending failure to pay fines as a reason for license suspension.

The issue is part of a larger national conversation in which activists say fines and penalties for not paying them have the effect of criminalizing poverty. The ACLU and other groups are backing lawsuits and other efforts to keep poor people who can’t afford to pay legal fees and fines from facing penalties.

Kansas drivers can lose their license if they fail to pay traffic fines or appear in court. Drivers with a suspended license are charged $100 for each traffic violation to get it reinstated. Advocates for the poor and racial minorities say the system means that those with money can pay fines and avoid license suspensions, while those who can’t afford the fines see their balances grow.

Some Kansas advocates for racial equity backed a bill this year that would have ended those additional $100 payments, saying the reinstatement fees are causing drivers to violate more traffic laws and to be stuck in a debt cycle, unable to legally drive to work, school, or get children to daycare.

Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit that advocated for the measure, found last year that about 134,000 Kansans had suspended licenses due to unpaid fines and fees.

Mike Fonkert, the group’s campaign director, told The Associated Press that there’s not enough evidence that suspending licenses compels people to pay off fines and fees.

“We believe that the only truly legitimate use of those suspensions is to keep dangerous drivers off the road,” Fonkert said.

Personnel costs made up about 91% of the state courts’ budget last fiscal year, according to Lisa Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Office of Judicial Administration. Shawn Jurgensen, special counsel to Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert, told lawmakers in February that the courts estimated that passing the measure to eliminate the compounding fees would have led to a roughly 44% drop in annual revenue beginning in the 2022 fiscal year.

“Until we can successfully get a separate, equal amount of replacement funding, it would jeopardize our ability to pay our employees,” Jurgensen said in an interview.

Jurgensen wouldn’t speak to the issues of hardship advocates say debt-based license suspensions are creating. He said the courts would prefer to be entirely funded by state funds, but that’s ultimately a decision for lawmakers.

The Kansas courts also opposed another measure that would have created a statewide system for people to pay down court fees and fines in monthly installments, or through community service or court-approved classes to avoid long drivers license suspensions. Jurgensen said that the Kansas courts wouldn’t be able to automatically track progress on payment plans until it sets up a new case management system, which he expects to be completed in 2022.

Lawmakers did pass a bill to allow those charged fines and court costs for violating traffic laws to petition courts to waive all or some of the costs. The new law allows the courts to reduce or waive the payments if it determines that drivers or their close family members would face hardship by paying the full costs.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican, said his committee heard testimony last year on a bill to end suspensions for failure to pay traffic tickets, but he didn’t put it to a committee vote.

Patton is concerned that ending debt-based license suspensions would mean no punishment for those who violate traffic laws. Still, he said he has discussed the issue with license suspension reform advocates, including conservative, small-government group Americans for Prosperity.

“This is one of those issues where you kind of have both ends of the political spectrum working on it,” Patton said. “If they can come up with something, then I could see it moving forward.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.