A couple of lawmakers had an idea.
A swell idea, most everyone agreed.
Even, strange as it seems, some people who opposed the plan.
This idea would keep people out of jail, stop clogging up the court system, help struggling residents hold on to jobs and, mainly, lessen the number of drivers with suspended licenses.
And yet this fine idea went nowhere in the state Capitol. Year after year after year.
In technical terms, this dysfunctional condition is known as Florida.
A few days ago, officials in Duval County announced a program aimed at getting unlicensed drivers off the road while at the same time keeping them from running up large debts and getting arrested.
Yes, the premise is similar to the idea St. Petersburg senators Jeff Brandes and Darryl Rouson have been trying for years to turn into a state law. I don’t think the Duval plan is as solid, but it’s better than the alternative. The alternative, in this case, being the same old bureaucratic nonsense.
Here’s the basic issue:
Somewhere along the line, suspending a driver’s license turned into a default punishment in Florida. Not just for poor drivers, but for a whole host of reasons. Truancy. Graffiti. Writing worthless checks. Underage smoking. Sexting. These are among the offenses that can lead to a suspended license.
Failure to pay a traffic citation is another reason. Now this wasn’t such a big deal in the 1990s when running a red light might cost you $54. Nowadays, it’s $166. And speeding tickets can top $300.
“To somebody with means, a fine or fee is an annoyance,’’ said Brandes. “To somebody who can’t afford to pay, it’s a catastrophe. You don’t pay the original $200 fine, and now it turns into a $500 fine and your license is suspended. You start paying in installments, but if you miss a month your license is suspended again. And now you’ve got another $65 reinstatement fee added on.
“Your life just begins to snowball downhill.’’
That’s not an exaggeration.
Get pulled over three times with a suspended license, and it turns into a felony. Rouson said more than 700 people are serving state prison sentences for driving with a suspended license.
And the problem is just getting worse. In 2013, the state suspended 1.3 million licenses. Last year, the number was up to 1.7 million.
It’s gotten to the point that cops have become reluctant to write tickets because they’re concerned about sending someone into financial calamity.
“Let’s say somebody runs a stop sign and gets a ticket. That’s not cheap, that’s $166,’’ said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “For some people that’s a choice between feeding your kids or paying the ticket. That’s not drama, that’s reality. So, of course you feed your kids. Now your license is suspended.
“A few months later you get pulled over again and you’re cited for driving with a suspended license and your life begins to spiral out of control. You’re not supposed to be driving, you don’t have the money to pay the fines, and that’s when some people start stealing to get out of this hole.’’
While suspending licenses was supposed to motivate people to take care of their problems, it’s had the opposite effect. You can’t pay fines without a job, and it’s hard to hold a job without a license.
This means the practical choice can be unemployment or jail.
Gualtieri wasn’t familiar with the details of the Duval plan, but said he is generally in favor of some type of reform. The concept is similar in some ways to the hugely successful civil citation program Gualtieri started in Pinellas to help people avoid criminal records for minor offenses.
So why does the Florida Legislature continue to resist these reforms?
Remember when I said even some opponents think this is a good idea? Those would be the state’s clerks of the court. They acknowledge the concept is worthwhile, but they also know it will affect their budgets if the number of suspensions goes down and community service is allowed as a substitute for fines.
So what we have is criminal justice policy being driven by finances.
And yet the bigger picture is that the state’s economy suffers when more people are being funneled into the criminal justice system.
All Brandes and Rouson want is a more common-sense approach. Their bill does not include people who lose their license for dangerous driving, nor those who are penalized for failure to pay child support.
“This is not about unbridled amnesty; it’s about smart justice,’’ Rouson said. “It’s a way to encourage people to get things right with alternative options.’’