It is one of the central tenets of the American jurisprudence — everyone is equal under the law. And though the legal system doesn’t always live up to that promise, the Legislature this week made it a little more fair.

No longer will someone’s driver’s license be suspended for failing to pay fines for non-driving violations, a practice that essentially created two justice systems — one for people who can afford fines, and for whom the imposition of fines is a minor inconvenience, and another for those who can’t.

For those who can’t afford them, fines can be a punishment far outweighing the crime. When someone fails to pay a fine — or, typically, fails to show up in court to explain why they can’t pay — their driver’s license is suspended, leaving them to choose between getting around without a car in a rural state with little public transportation, or breaking the law.

As one might assume, that’s no choice at all — you have to go to work, the store, or the doctor. So you drive, and sooner or later, because you go a little too fast, a headlight’s out, or you roll through a stop sign, your luck runs out.

At that time, a police stop means more fines and fees, at the very least. And if you couldn’t afford the fines before, you certainly can’t now. Buried in fines and fees and unable to legally drive — that’s heavy punishment for making a small mistake or two while being poor.

It is a backward system in so many ways, and in less than 90 days, it will be no more, after lawmakers on Monday defeated Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of L.D. 1190.

It’s no surprise that Gov. LePage approved of the practice, which has its roots in the tough-on-crime philosophy that so failed in the war on drugs, and which the governor has sought to apply whenever and wherever possible.

In his veto message, LePage said the threat of a license suspension “serves as a strong motivator” for people to pay their fines. But there is no motivator strong enough to make money appear where it is not, and making just restitution to the state doesn’t get any easier as fines and fees mount, and the violator is unable to get around.

In any case, there are other ways courts can compel a person to pay. They can garnish wages, impose liens, or order community service instead — all are arguably easier and cheaper for the court to administer. This isn’t an argument for eliminating consequences, but for making sure that the consequences aren’t beyond reason.

Fines are meant to influence behavior, not bury a person in debt and isolate them from everyday life for minor violations. Thankfully, the Legislature recognized that, and took an important step toward a more just justice system.

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