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Politics & Government

Legislature to consider whether Delaware's court fines system needs overhaul

James Dawson/Delaware Public Media

Delaware House lawmakers will vote next month on a bill that could begin scaling back punishments for those who can’t afford to pay court fines.

State Rep. Sean Lynn’s legislation tackles Delaware’s criminal fines from multiple angles, eliminating some court fines outright and allowing judges to waive any fine at any time.

One target is the public defender fee, which Office of Defense Services legislative and communications director Jon Offredo says does not actually pay for public defenders. "We don’t want to see the money either, because if people can’t afford an attorney, they can’t afford an attorney," he said.

Offredo added that the attorney fee "sets the wrong tone" by giving low-income clients the impression that public defenders charge for their services.

The bill would also restore the drivers' licenses of Delawareans who lost them because they could not pay their court debts. Meryem Dede, an advocate with the Campaign to End Debtors' Prisons, says the bill could help tens of thousands of Delawareans unable to afford basic necessities because of old debts, or hold a job because of a suspended driver’s license get back on track. “The effects we expect from the changes in HB 244, and hopefully future changes, would be more people entering the job market," she said, "and then a lot of people who won’t be in need of social services and who will be able to get back on their feet because they’re not tied down by this system.”

"We can hopefully help people move beyond their worst mistakes and also properly fund the critical services the state offers," Offredo added.

As of 2017, more than 20,000 Delawareans had suspended drivers’ licenses because of unpaid fines. The same year, Delaware courts issued more than 40,000 bench warrants for non-felony offenses, including contempt of court for not paying fines.

The bill was released from committee earlier this month.