Maine, like too many other states, has two justice systems — one in which a small fine is a minor inconvenience, and another in which it sets off a nasty chain reaction that hurts working Mainers, their kids and their employers, and burdens police and the court system.

For people who fall into the latter system — those who can’t afford to pay on time — fines beget more fines and fees, and even perhaps criminal charges. People are driven into poverty, often the fines are never collected, and no one is made more safe.

A bill now before the Legislature would help Maine take a step away from that unfair and unproductive system. L.D. 1190 would prevent courts from suspending driver’s licenses for failing to pay fines unrelated to driving.

Not only is such an automatic suspension a questionable assault on due process, it is also destructive for low-income Mainers. Already unable to pay the fine, they are hit with additional fines and fees, and they now cannot drive to work, school or even the courthouse without breaking the law.

So what do they do in a state with little to no public transportation? Overwhelmingly, they still drive, now on a suspended license, until a traffic stop days, months or even years later results in what is now a criminal charge, adding costs and consequences for the driver, and additional burdens for police and the courts, all without improving public safety.

In these cases, the law does not accomplish its intended goal. While the threat of a suspended license may give someone who can afford the fine a little push to pay it quickly, it doesn’t help those who can’t. And as the fines and fees escalate, soon the total owed becomes so large that the person gives up on ever paying it. Impeding their ability to get to work doesn’t help, either.

The same could be said for failing to pay fines from minor traffic violations as well. A citation for a broken taillight or rolling through a stop sign can lead quickly to a suspended license too, with the same debilitating effects on the offender, and no true impact on road safety. The Legislature should look at amending this portion of the law as well.

But L.D. 1190 is a good start. The fact is that there are plenty of ways the courts can pressure people to pay fines without taking their license, imposing escalating fees, and harming their ability to travel in such a rural state.

Lawmakers started in that direction last year with the passage of a bill that gave judges more discretion when handing out fines. They should now pass L.D. 1190, and take one more step toward a more fair justice system.

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