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Hundreds owe fees for driving with suspended licenses. Lansing could forgive some of that debt

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Lansing City Hall.
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https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

The city of Lansing could forgive thousands of dollars in court fees owed by Lansing residents for driving with suspended licenses.

Mayor Andy Schor proposes using $102,000 in federal pandemic relief money to pay down those fees owed by more than 400 people since 2014.

If funding is approved by City Council, Amber Paxton, who leads Lansing's Financial Empowerment Center, says fees could be paid down within a year.

City officials plan to limit the fee forgiveness to Lansing residents. People who've been charged with impaired driving or who are wanted for violent crimes would be excluded, Paxton said.

The idea began when Lansing joined Cities Addressing Fines and Fees Equitably, an initiative from the National League of Cities with financial support from J.P. Morgan Chase.

As part of that program, in which cities study how fines and fees can further inequality, Lansing hired Michigan State University Ph.D. candidate Katie Bollman to analyze court data.

Bollman says license suspensions were of particular interest because people might have temporarily lost their driver's licenses for failing to show up in court or because of unpaid fees for previous traffic charges like speeding. That can have a spiraling effect, she said.

"You can't take your kids to child care," Bollman said. "You can't go to work and if you can't drive to work, then how are you supposed to get the money to then pay back this debt that you owe so that you can get your driver's license unsuspended?”

Those concerns prompted a change to Michigan law in 2021, directing agencies to stop suspending licenses for charges unrelated to unsafe driving. Thousands of Michiganders became eligible to have their licenses reinstated as part of that law, but Paxton says hundreds of Lansing residents still owe debt to 54A District Court from prior suspensions.

Paxton hopes part of the city's allocation of the American Rescue Plan Act to go toward paying that debt, which includes late fees and fees charged for license reinstatement.

Details of the program still need to be finalized, but Paxton plans to reach out to court officials first to see if the court will waive any of the fees. Then, she wants the city to pay the remaining debt directly before sending letters to people to tell them that their fees have been paid.

Lansing is getting $49 million total from the American Rescue Plan, which can be spent broadly on coronavirus recovery. That includes counteracting economic impacts and inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic.

Sarah Lehr is a politics and civics reporter for WKAR News.
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