The goals of Maine’s legal system should be to advance justice, to promote rehabilitation, and to make communities safer. But too many of our policies focus on punishment without considering whether they actually help us achieve those goals. Too often, people face harsh penalties that don’t match their actions, and that do nothing to benefit society.
For example, under current Maine law, failure to pay a fine related to a criminal offense results in an automatic driver’s license suspension. But suspending someone’s driver’s license for failure to pay a fine only makes it harder for that person to pay the fine. For many Mainers, no driver’s license means no way to get to work. No work means no income to pay the fine and no income to get the license back. It’s an unending cycle that makes no sense.
By design, this policy hurts low-income Mainers the most. People with enough money can simply pay their fines and move on; it is only those who don’t have enough money to pay their fines that face this particular consequence.
And the harms go beyond money. The ability to drive in Maine is crucial to nearly all Mainers, and taking away a license can hurt entire families. This is especially true in rural areas with no public transportation systems. Without a valid license, parents may be unable to get their children to daycare, doctor’s visits, and other crucial appointments.
In this way, our current policy essentially punishes people twice because they are poor – creating different systems for those who can pay and those who cannot. Possessing a driver’s license should be about being a safe driver, not about whether you have enough money to pay fines.
For those reasons, we supported LD 1190, “An Act Regarding Driver’s License Suspensions for Nondriving-related Violations,” to end the practice of automatic license suspensions for non-driving offenses. The bill passed in both the House and the Senate, but was vetoed by the governor last week. But on Monday, the legislature overwhelmingly voted to override the governor’s veto: 129-15 in the House, and a unanimous vote in the Senate!
The costs of the current system, both financial and human, are too high. The current system disproportionately hurts families, rural Mainers, and people with low incomes. It traps people in the criminal justice system, rather than helping them make a successful return to society.
In about three months, when the new law goes into effect, Maine will take a big step forward to help put people back on track, instead of punishing them for being poor.