By Mary Anne Edwards
For most of us, a driver’s license is a necessity to have a job.
By law, Delaware courts assess fines and fees for minor traffic offenses and misdemeanors. Failure to pay fines and fees, mandated court-ordered arrest warrants and driver’s license suspensions often result in loss of employment, loss of financial security and loss of family well-being.
In Delaware, the criminal justice system works against the poor and minorities who, because of limited resources, may be unable to pay their fines and fees. As Meryem Dede, assistant public defender, notes in her article, “Blood from a Turnip: How Delaware’s Misdemeanors Compound Poverty (and How to Fix It)” in the June 2020 Delaware Bar Association Journal, more than 97% of criminal filings in Delaware in 2019 were for nonfelony offenses. It is important to note that unlike a felony, a misdemeanor is a lower-level crime: simple drug possession, loitering, disorderly conduct, etc. Even minor violations can result in long-term financial ramifications for Delaware’s indigent families.
Consider this example: A woman with limited financial resources is stopped for an expired auto tag and is issued a ticket. The fine is the punishment, but on top of the fine, additional fees are levied to help fund some state programs like the volunteer ambulance fund, the police, videophones for court hearings and a fund for victims’ compensation. These services should be paid for with tax revenue, but instead, they are piled on the poor who have little ability to pay them. Fines start out small but become hundreds of dollars once all fees are added.
To avoid an arrest warrant and suspension of her driver’s license, this woman may have to choose between paying the fines and fees and buying groceries for her family. Is there justice when a person of limited means must make this kind of decision? She needs to earn money to pay what she owes, but she needs to drive to work to earn her paycheck. Mandatory driver’s license suspension for minor violations flies in the face of reason.
In Delaware, the courts issue a mandatory arrest warrant and a mandatory suspension of your driver’s license if you fail to pay your fine and fees. Even worse — there is also the possibility of imprisonment for nonpayment.
In the first six months of 2018, 129 people served Level V prison time for failure to pay fines and fees. Failure to pay can lead to a downward debt spiral that traps the working poor in a desperate situation. Long term, the unpaid debt damages credit ratings that can linger for years. Late fees pile up additional debt to levels that are unsustainable and compound the injustice.
Losing a driver’s license in Delaware is more than an inconvenience, especially when a car is necessary for travel to and from a job — Delaware is not New York City, where the subway and transit system can drop you off within a few blocks of your workplace. If caught driving to work with a suspended license, you are at risk of additional offenses in Delaware’s legal system, causing you to slide into a difficult-to-escape downward debt spiral.
Why does Delaware’s legal system subject low-income people to archaic laws? Arrest warrants, mandatory suspension of driver’s licenses and the possibility of imprisonment are examples of a criminal justice system that is profoundly unjust to the poor. Criminal justice has become criminal injustice. Laws need to be changed.
In 2017, 44,889 arrest warrants for failure to pay fines and fees were issued in Delaware. In 2019, more than 479,000 criminal and traffic violations were filed in Delaware courts — almost 50% of Delaware’s population. How is this possible?
Delaware overzealously processes an extraordinary number of misdemeanors. Why is this happening in our state? Who is being served by Delaware’s criminal justice system and who is unfairly being penalized by it? These concerns need to be addressed and corrected.
In 2019, Delaware Senate Bill 39 was an attempt to correct some of these injustices, including driver’s license suspension. SB 39 never got out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Delaware General Assembly should address the “criminal injustice” statutes that wage war on the poor and pass legislation that will stop criminalizating the poor for failing to pay excessive fines and fees. The Delaware General Assembly should embrace forward thinking by enacting legislation to unburden the poor, who are negatively impacted by a legal system that fosters criminal injustice on those too poor to be able to pay or defend themselves.
Mary Anne Edwards is a Network Delaware board member and member of the Campaign to End Debtors’ Prison Committee. She lives in Wilmington.