Imagine a single mom in your neighborhood who is trying to make sure her several children have a normal childhood. She juggles at least two jobs to barely scrape by each month. Necessities like clothes and a maintained vehicle become strains on her budget.
One day she falls behind in her schedule and is hurrying to pick up one of her children. In her haste she was pulled over for speeding — something she may not even have been doing. The officer wrote her a costly ticket that she doesn’t know how she can afford to pay. Her options are limited; what can she do?
Amid the minutia of public policy discussions and political platitudes we often forget how laws and layers of government affect the lives of everyday people — especially those who are trying to lift themselves up from poor or difficult circumstances. The well-connected see their issues pushed forward and resolved, but for many of our neighbors and friends, little seems to change for the better.
The question then becomes, how can we ease the burdens of this single mom, or of the average Utahn? How can we repair the ladder of upward mobility?
For all the flack that the Utah Legislature gets, elected officials actually made a tremendous amount of headway this year.
Let’s take your single mom neighbor as an example. Under normal circumstances, she has two options: Pay the fine or ignore it. Paying the fine might be a financial impossibility without the help of payday lenders or other less-than-ideal financial choices. Ignoring the fine will surely lead to a ballooning effect of late fees, interest and other accumulating charges. Eventually, it may lead to an arrest warrant and possible jail time.
This is where Rep. Brian King’s newly passed House Bill 248 comes into play. Most Utahns are unaware that oftentimes judges will consider allowing a person to pay off their fine via community service. HB 248 makes this a uniform practice around the state and adds the information to the actual ticket so that people can become informed of this option.
What about those ballooning late fees and interest payments? Rep. Dan McCay’s House Bill 336 addresses that. Caps are placed on additional fees and interest that will prevent a fine from skyrocketing in cost. It’s important to note that these limits will not affect victim restitution or felony cases, but low-level offenders become shielded from ballooning costs.
Now what about the ticket itself? Senate Bill 154, run by Sen. Howard Stephenson, ensures that that interaction between peace officer and citizen is not overshadowed by a ticketing quota. Officers should have full discretion to use their judgment on whether or not to issue a ticket in the first place.
But it doesn’t stop there. Perhaps our single mom is hoping to get a new job in a field that requires an occupational license. If she is participating in a public assistance program administered by the Department of Workforce Services, the fee for that license can now be waived. You can thank Rep. Susan Pulsipher and House Bill 170 for that.
And what of preventing low-level offenses from causing Utahns to end up in the pipeline that leads to jail time?
Sen. Daniel Thatcher had that covered this year with Senate Bill 20 and Senate Bill 180. These two bills help combat the tide of overcriminalization by reducing many Class B misdemeanors down to infractions.
Thatcher also fought back against efforts to repeal an important change that is about to go into effect regarding code enforcement. Senate Bill 251 from 2017 requires that if a city ordinance or code violation carries the penalty of jail time, then a law enforcement officer needs to issue the citation — not a city code enforcement officer. This bill will help encourage cities to reduce the penalties on some local city ordinances.
And finally, if someone is arrested, Utah will be reforming its pretrial release system to give judges greater flexibility to release people so they can prepare themselves for their day in court, rather than taking a plea deal just to get out of jail because they can’t afford bail. Utah can start to truly live up to idea of “innocent until proven guilty.”
Thankfully the Legislature has not forgotten about the average Utahn and hopefully those impacted will be better able to focus on what truly matters: providing for their families.
Michael Melendez is director of policy for Libertas Institute, a free market think tank in Lehi.