Driver Responsibility Fees were instituted in 2003 as a way to punish drivers facing driving charges (from the serious, like impaired or reckless driving, to the less serious, like driving without insurance or without a license), or who had accrued more than seven points for traffic tickets. They were also (some would say, primarily) created to help Michigan’s then-faltering economy - and they did, raising between $99 and $115 million per year.
Criticism of Driver Responsibilities started almost immediately, and it hasn’t stopped. Many see them as the definition of double jeopardy. Once someone has paid their initial fine, they then must pay Driver Responsibility Fees, which can be up to $1,000 per offense. If they don’t pay within 30 days, their license is then suspended, and, if they manage to pay off the fine, they then must pay a license reinstatement fee of $125. If they can’t pay the fine, they’ll receive another Driver Responsibility Fee, trapping Michigan drivers in an endless cycle.
In October, the Michigan Senate voted unanimously to eliminate the Driver Responsibility Program. The House bill is currently in committee; while the Senate’s proposal would eliminate any debt that’s at least 6 years old (approximately $300 million) by October 2018, the House proposes eliminating all existing driver fees.
The two chambers are currently trying to reconcile differences in their bills, and both have put a priority on eliminating Driver Responsibility Fees by the end of the year. The bills have bipartisan support, with both Republicans and Democrats acknowledging the undue burden these fees place on Michigan’s poorest residents: “This was a huge burden on the working poor,” said Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, with many of his colleagues echoing his sentiments.
The current system doesn’t help the people that it hurts: it just makes it harder for them to climb out of the hole that it’s dug for them. The elimination of Driver Responsibility Fees will be a win for social justice efforts in Michigan, and hopefully signals the beginning of even bigger reforms.
Mathilde Finnegan. Policy Intern, NASW-Michigan