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Kansas Supreme Court staff stepped in this spring to oppose legislation meant to address issues surrounding drivers license suspensions for unpaid traffic fines, an issue pushed by activists for racial justice and the poor nationwide.

Some measures to address the issue passed and became law. But other efforts to eliminate some fees and to replace some fines with community service stalled after a court official told lawmakers that collecting fewer dollars through reinstatement fees would threaten the courts’ ability to remain open and pay employees. Some advocates think that’s the problem: The court system is overly reliant on impoverished and minority populations for funding.

“The system is formulated to thrive off the backs of poor people,” said Sheila Officer, chairwoman of the Racial Profiling Advisory Board of Wichita. She said states including Washington and California have passed laws ending failure to pay fines as a reason for license suspension.

The issue is part of a larger national conversation in which activists say fines and penalties for not paying them have the effect of criminalizing poverty. The ACLU and other groups are backing lawsuits and other efforts to keep poor people who can’t afford to pay legal fees and fines from facing penalties.

Kansas drivers can lose their license if they fail to pay traffic fines or appear in court. Drivers with a suspended license are charged $100 for each traffic violation to get it reinstated. Advocates for the poor and racial minorities say the system means that those with money can pay fines and avoid license suspensions, while those who can’t afford the fines see their balances grow.

Some Kansas advocates for racial equity backed a bill this year that would have ended those additional $100 payments, saying the reinstatement fees are causing drivers to violate more traffic laws and to be stuck in a debt cycle, unable to legally drive to work, school, or get children to daycare.

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