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Crime, Law and Justice
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Help Could Be On The Way For Suspended Drivers In Washington

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Washington Department of Transportation
File photo. According to the state Department of Licensing, 380,000 drivers in Washington have suspended licenses.

According to the Washington Department of Licensing, 380,000 drivers have suspended licenses. Many of them are low-income and lost their license because they failed to pay traffic tickets. They often have unpaid tickets from several jurisdictions and they’re likely to drive even without a license.

Now state lawmakers and the attorney general are looking for ways to help these drivers get their licenses back and pay off their fines.

So, how to tackle those issues all at once? Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are interested in borrowing a page from the cities of Seattle and Spokane and from King County. In those jurisdictions, suspended drivers can go to something called relicensing court. There a judge can consolidate unpaid tickets into a single, monthly payment and conditionally reinstate the driver’s license.

However, local courts do not have the authority to consolidate traffic tickets from outside their jurisdiction.

Ferguson wants to see a statewide system. It would allow fines to be consolidated from across Washington’s patchwork of court jurisdictions. Ferguson predicts this would reduce the number of people driving while suspended, lower court costs and bring in more revenue to local governments.

Outstanding traffic fines can quickly add up, especially if they go to collections. In 2011, we profiled a suspended driver who owed nearly $10,000 in fines, fees and interest.

“Our current system places an unequal burden on low-income drivers,” Ferguson said in a press release. “That’s wrong and it’s time for a more equitable solution.”

Local courts report that approximately one-quarter of the misdemeanor prosecutions they handle are for driving while suspended in the third degree. Usually a person charged with this crime had their license suspended for unpaid tickets, as opposed to a more serious offense like a hit-and-run.

The Washington House and Senate are taking different approaches to Ferguson’s requested legislation. The House version instructs the Administrative Office of the Courts to establish a program to allow for the consolidation of traffic fines statewide.

The Senate proposal adopts a go-slow approach. It convenes a work group to provide feedback by September 2017 on how a statewide fine consolidation program might work.

The relicensing program would only apply to drivers who lost their license due to unpaid traffic tickets.

Neither the House or Senate bills would decriminalize driving while suspended in the third degree, which some advocates for the poor have proposed.