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COMMENTARY: Time for Nevada modern-day debtor’s prisons

This past year has forced many Nevada families to do more with less, all while facing job losses, school closures and the health concerns of COVID-19. Though state officials enacted temporary policies to mitigate the economic fallout, many local jurisdictions continued to issue and enforce warrants for outstanding fines and fees for minor traffic violations, leaving vulnerable Nevadans facing additional fees and even jail.

Nevada is one of just 13 U.S. states that still treat minor traffic violations as criminal offenses rather than civil infractions. A ticket for something as minor as driving with expired registration, driving without your license or not having proof of insurance in the vehicle can land someone in jail if they are unable to afford the fines and fees.

To some people, it’s hard to imagine being unable to pay fines and fees for minor traffic violations. But tickets often cost hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars once Nevada’s misdemeanor fee and other court costs are added to the original fine.

For those who request payment plans because they can’t afford to pay the entire amount, there is an additional $50-$150 fee and no grace period. If they miss one payment deadline, a bench warrant is automatically issued, making them subject to arrest. And a warrant comes with an additional warrant fee, which must be paid before payments on the initial fine can resume.

For more than a decade, advocates and policy experts have fought to change this antiquated Nevada law. This could finally be the year.

Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen has introduced Assembly Bill 116, which would end the practice of issuing warrants when an individual can’t afford to pay fines and fees for minor traffic violations. The bill has support from a broad range of stakeholders from across the political spectrum.

The necessity of this reform was made clear in a new report from UNLV’s law school that shows how Nevada’s current policies are needlessly damaging our economy, clogging our courts and causing irreparable damage to working families — especially low-income communities of color.

Nevada’s Justice and Municipal Courts have issued hundreds of thousands of arrest warrants over the years. When the pandemic forced courts to close last March, 270,000 warrants were outstanding in the Las Vegas Justice Court alone.

Two-thirds of Las Vegas’ traffic warrants stemming from unpaid traffic tickets were from majority Black and Latino ZIP codes. Black people — who, data shows, are more likely to be stopped by the police — make up 13 percent of Clark County’s population but were issued 43 percent of warrants.

Warrants are an inefficient and counterproductive method of coercing people to pay a traffic ticket, often costing Nevada taxpayers more money than they generate. The cost to the individual and their family is even more. Three days in jail often costs a person their job, housing and even their children, making it far more difficult to earn the money to pay their court debt or to care for themselves or their families.

Resources devoted to collecting and enforcing fees and fines could be better spent on efforts that actually improve public safety. Collection and enforcement efforts divert law enforcement and courts from their core responsibilities. Turning police into tax collectors destroys police-community relationships, which are critical for police to solve crimes and keep communities safe.

The practice of jailing people for unpaid fines and fees related to minor traffic offenses doesn’t get dangerous drivers off the street. All 10 of the most common offenses for which someone is arrested on a traffic warrant have nothing to do with the practice of driving.

AB116 builds on a successful model established by Carson City, which stopped issuing warrants in traffic cases in 2019. Carson City’s collection rate increased by 8.5 percent following implementation.

Carson City’s successful experiment revealed what many have long suspected: Punishing people for unpaid fines and fees was never about safety. It’s a failed experiment in generating revenue. The idea was that the threat of harsh punishment would make people pay their fines and fees. But it turns out that many people don’t have the money to pay, and punishing people for being broke just makes the problem worse.

Nevada lawmakers can, and must, do better.

Leisa Moseley is the Nevada state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

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