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Program offers hope for drivers who lose licenses

ADDISON COUNTY — Having one’s driver’s license suspended can be the punishment that keeps on penalizing. Not having access to a vehicle for a substantial length of time can prevent the offender from getting to doctors’ appointments, to family events and — ironically — to a job to earn the money to pay off fines in order to have the driver’s license reinstated.
Realizing that conundrum, counties throughout the state are now offering a new program that can get driving-with-suspended-license, referred to by police as “DLS,” offenders back on the road more quickly than ever before. It’s called the Civil DLS Diversion Program and it offers eligible offenders the opportunity to legally drive after working out a payment schedule for related fines.
“This was our concern — there has to be a better way of dealing with these people to help them get their license back, to put together an agreement to help them pay their fines,” said Tom Scanlon, vice president of the board of the Addison County Court Diversion and Community Justice Projects.
It was during May of 2012 that the Legislature and Gov. Peter Shumlin approved a new law creating the Civil DLS Diversion Program. It was the outgrowth of the research done by the Nonviolent Misdemeanor Review Committee, which had been charged with looking at ways to reduce criminal recidivism and to propose alternatives to incarceration for non-violent misdemeanor offenses. State officials identified civil and criminal DLS as a significant cost driver for the judicial system; as of the spring of 2012, approximately 38,000 of Vermont’s total of 533,000 licensed drivers (or 7.1 percent) were serving driving suspensions.
Scanlon noted Addison County Court Diversion deals with many folks whose infractions include DLSs. And offenders, in most cases, have to come up with more than $1,000 to resolve related fines and satisfy auto insurance requirements in order to again be cleared for driving by the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles.
“Our board thought this is a serious problem in the state and that something should be done to alleviate it,” Scanlon said.
The Civil DLS Program is shaping up as a promising solution, according to Scanlon.
In order to be eligible for the program, offenders must have met their underlying suspension requirements, such as serving out a suspension period required by accumulation of points on their license. These are folks whose licenses have been suspended for infractions like careless and negligent driving, speeding and other misdemeanors
People whose license suspension is criminal in nature, or is the result of driving under the influence or other serious offense, are not eligible.
Addison County Court Diversion has a staff person, Brianna Desautel, who works with DLS offenders. Addison County offenders wanting to access the Civil DLS Diversion Program meet with Desautel to discuss the reasons for their license suspension, their personal finances, the steps needed to get the driver’s license reinstated, and how to pay off associated fines and fees.
Those who take part in the program pay just $25 in fees up front, according to Scanlon, who placed the total fee a client would pay at $300. That money is used to defray the costs of administering the program. The cost can still be a bargain to offenders, most of whom are looking at a four-figure financial mountain to climb toward getting their driver’s license back. And the negotiated payment schedule can result in a reduction of fines and fees, with community service or educational program attendance occasionally offered in exchange for fine and fee reductions.
People who successfully complete the program not only get their licenses reinstated, but their past civil violations will not be counted toward more serious criminal charges. Those who fail to follow through with the contract will see their license again suspended.
Willa Farrell is director of the Court Diversion Office of the Vermont Attorney General. She said more than 200 DLS offenders have regained their licenses through the new diversion program since it was rolled out earlier this year.
“This (program) gives people hope,” Farrell said, adding it also helps people navigate a judicial system that can otherwise be difficult and/or intimidating for a newcomer.
Scanlon would like to see more Addison County DLS offenders take advantage of the program, which has thus far served only a handful. The Addison County Courthouse so far this year has processed 48 DLS cases unrelated to driving under the influence, according to statistics provided by county Clerk Jo LaMarche.
Scanlon noted many county residents don’t live near public transportation and therefore depend on their cars to run important errands and commute to work. The DLS Diversion Program allows offenders to drive as long as they work out — and stick to — a plan to pay their debt to society.
“Getting people who are eligible to drive back driving again is a good thing, once they have (satisfied) their suspension period,” said Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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