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A new law will stop the suspension of driver’s licenses when New Yorkers fail to pay fines, though the governor weakened the legislation before signing it.

On New Year’s Eve, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that will end the suspension of driver’s licenses over a failure to pay a traffic ticket, a major win for economic and racial justice advocates who have long decried the practice. The law will also reinstate the licenses of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, many of whom have lost driving privileges because they cannot afford to pay their fines.

Suspending driver’s licenses entrenches and punishes poverty by preventing people from driving to work, taking kids to school, or visiting their doctor during the COVID-19 pandemic. People who are stopped for driving on a suspended license face misdemeanor or felony charges and arrests of people who can’t afford to pay fines and fees inflate jail populations across the country.

“This win is a significant step toward scaling back economic and racial inequality in New York,” Katie Adamides, New York state director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said in a press statement about the new law. (Note: Jonathan Ben-Menachem, the author, was employed by the Fines and Fees Justice Center until July of 2020.) The law was sponsored by Assemblymember Pamela Hunter and Senator Timothy Kennedy.

Advocates are also warning, though, that New York needs to take any other steps if it aims to fight the criminalization of poverty, especially because Cuomo cut out an important part of the legislation before signing it.


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