Backers tout program helping drivers get licenses reinstated

By Julie Carr Smyth - The Associated Press

COLUMBUS (AP) — Supporters of a program that waived or reduced reinstatement fees for Ohio residents with suspended driver’s licenses said Wednesday that nearly 77,000 people benefited from the program during a trial period.

A report by the Ohio Poverty Law Center found the Reinstatement Fee Amnesty Initiative saved residents a combined $63 million over six months. At the same time, the reduced fees they paid brought in $3.6 million for the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles that backers say would probably never have been collected otherwise.

“Those fees, if you have more and more suspensions, they just rack up,” said Megan O’Dell, an attorney at the center. “And that’s how people end up having to pay thousands of dollars to the BMV, not just to the court.”

The center and Southeastern Ohio Legal Services are among groups pushing the state to make the initiative permanent.

It’s part of a national effort to rethink the use of bail, bond, court costs and fees, which critics say disproportionately impact the poorest defendants. The states of California, Florida and Indiana and the cities of New York, Chicago, Houston and Oklahoma City are among jurisdictions that have offered similar programs, whether continually or for a special week or day.

The report found that 62 percent of the 3 million license suspensions in 2017 were for offenses unrelated to safe and responsible vehicle operation, such as failing to pay child support, failing to show up in court or, the most common reason, failing to show proof of insurance.

Such offenses can pile up and create a heavy debt load. In one Franklin County case, a man had accrued more than $10,000. The report found the average waived during the pilot program was $1,270 per person. Fees were reduced $789 on average.

Franklin County Municipal Judge Jodi Thomas participated in one of the amnesty clinics held across the state during the pilot program that brought together judges, prosecutors, insurance companies, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services that oversees child support, legal aid and other organizations into one-stop-shops for suspended drivers.

Some 1,000 individuals were helped at the Franklin County clinic over three days, she said.

“Most of them do not even know what they need to do to get a valid license, or, if they do know, they’re in such a hole that they never thought they’d be able to get out of that because of their fees,” she said.

Eligible offenders in Ohio had to be at least 18 months beyond their suspensions and have completed all court-ordered sanctions besides paying the reinstatement fees.

The person also couldn’t have committed a drug-, alcohol- or deadly weapon-related offense, some of the more serious of the state’s 30 reasons for suspending someone’s license.

Among those who attended the Franklin County program was Chris Damron, 36, of Columbus. The workshop gave him “a second chance at life,” he said in a written statement.

“It was the best experience I’ve ever had at a courthouse,” he said. “Everyone was wanting to help you.”

Anne Roche, an attorney with Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, said that in her area people often have to drive across county lines to work, attend school, shop or pick up their child at day care. This can mean accumulating suspensions in courts whose systems are not integrated.

Her group, she said, would like to see a permanent program that uses programs beyond the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to determine eligibility for low-income offenders. Not all low-income people are on food assistance, she said, but they might be receiving other government benefits that would prove their financial need.


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By Julie Carr Smyth

The Associated Press