Two new bills tackle court practices disproportionately affecting the poor

On Thursday, February 14, two bills focused on criminal justice reform received a warm welcome of support from legislators, retired police officers, public defenders and prosecutors upon their introduction. The bills, titled HF 1060 and HF 1061, would reform court practices associated with petty misdemeanor convictions and traffic offenses that disproportionately affect the poor.

The first bill, HF 1060, seeks to permit state judges to reduce or waive the mandatory $75 surcharge for petty misdemeanor convictions and all traffic offenses in the event a defendant can show either an inability to pay or another related hardship. The second bill, HF 1061, prohibits the suspension of a driver’s license based only on the fact that the individual failed to pay a traffic ticket, parking fine, or a surcharge. 

Criminal justice reform has gained attention nationwide more recently and these bills aim to help combat court practices that are common among many states, such as the use of a driver’s license suspension to force or compel payment of court debt.

A 2017 Legal Aid Justice project stated that as a result of such practices, millions of Americans who lose their licenses also lose their ability to transport themselves to and from work, to appointments, or to care for family members. These practices are often counterproductive, as they add numerous cases to an already congested court system, drive up costs, and disproportionately affect the poor. Often times a license suspension and added fees can send a defendant into a cycle of debt they can’t easily escape.

Minnesota is not the first state to seek to reform these practices. Michigan and Tennessee have each seen a federal judge order an injunction to bar the states from such license suspensions for defendants that cannot afford to pay their fees. Moreover, if the bills are enacted, Minnesota will join California as one of the few states to enact legislation aimed at prohibiting driver’s license suspensions based solely on unpaid traffic fines.

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