Northwest Justice Project did an extensive strategic planning process a few years ago. One targeted strategy was statewide advocacy on legal issues affecting/creating barriers to employment. In this region, with unemployment rates still nearing the top of the list, we know this IS a systemic problem.
Barriers to employment (in no particular order): lack of transportation (inadequate transit, gas prices, no driver’s license, no vehicle, etc.), background checks (credit, criminal history, Adult Protective Services and Child Protective Services findings), inadequate employment opportunities, inadequate education or skills training, etc. Not surprisingly, most of us know at least one person, usually more, who are experiencing these or other barriers to employment.
Among others, Northwest Justice Project has been focusing on driver’s license reinstatement. Driver’s license revocations occur as a result of various circumstances, e.g., unpaid fines or other legal financial obligations (restitution, court costs, etc.) in criminal cases; unpaid fines/costs in civil or traffic infractions; failure to pay child support, etc.
In rural communities in particular, it is a vicious cycle: I can’t get (to) a job, because I don’t have a license—I can’t get my license, because I owe fines—I can’t pay the fines, because I don’t have a job.
And typically, if one does not promptly pay the fines, the courts turn the fines over to a collection agency and a fine that may have been $200-$400 exponentially increases from fees, costs and interest. It is also common to have multiple fines/charges in multiple courts/counties, as well as outstanding warrants.
From an advocate’s perspective, I have multiple clients who are really trying to get on track. When caught in this vicious cycle — while also trying to remain sober, to find work, to take care of one’s family — it can be very stressful.
To add to that stress, one of the issues we are seeing statewide is no two courts handle revocation/reinstatement in the same way. A few courts have relicensing programs. Some courts pull cases out of collections; many won’t. Some courts offer community service in lieu of paying fines; however, many courts don’t readily advertise the option and/or it is difficult to access.
It is the same for warrants. Some courts issue warrants for failure to appear and/or failure to pay; some do not. Some allow warrants to be quashed by just showing up. Some require fees from nominal amounts to $100-plus. Some require “book and release” into the local jail.
If Northwest Justice Project, a statewide law firm of more than 100 lawyers, has difficulty navigating this on behalf of our clients, one can only imagine it’s a deal breaker for many trying to do it on their own.
As I know more about what our local courts require, I’ll be further writing on this topic next month.
Locally, I am starting to see more of these cases. Many clients have a mix of court debt and medical debt. I’ve often been successful in getting medical debt reduced or eliminated under charity care. If the client has even some steady income, I have been able to negotiate reasonable payment plans. Once the client starts making regular payments, the court(s) are notified the payments are being received. In turn, the court(s) notify Department of Licensing and the hold on the license is usually released.
In limited circumstances, filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy may be an option to pull cases out of collections and enter into a payment plan with the bankruptcy court to pay off the court fines. This may be an option if you owe a lot of money in multiple courts and jurisdictions. WARNING: There are currently scams offering this service that are NOT legitimate, so do your homework!
NOTE: Northwest Justice Project does not provide legal representation for defendants facing criminal charge(s). If a defendant in a criminal case cannot afford an attorney, a public defender is assigned.
We are only reviewing certain types of license revocation/reinstatement cases. For example, we do not accept license revocations based on non-payment of child support. You must first call CLEAR (see below) to see if your case is an appropriate referral to the Aberdeen office. NOTE: if you are a veteran, our Veterans Project may be able to assist you in getting your child support adjusted.
The Olympian recently picked up one of the cases my counterpart at Northwest Justice Project Olympia was handling and wrote an article and editorial; check it out:
To find out if you are eligible for Northwest Justice Project services:
For cases including youth (Individualized Education Program and school discipline issues), debt collection cases and tenant evictions, please call for a local intake appointment at (360) 533-2282 or toll free (866) 402-5293. No walk-ins, please.
For all other legal issues, please call our toll-free intake and referral hotline commonly known as “CLEAR” (Coordinated Legal Education Advice and Referral) at 1-888-201-1014, Mondays through Fridays 9:10 a.m. to 12:25 p.m. If you are a senior, 60 and over, please call 1-888-387-7111; you may be eligible regardless of income. Language interpreters are available. You can also complete an application for services at nwjustice.org/get-legal-help. Be sure to also check out our law library at: www.washingtonlawhelp.org.