Program that gives suspended drivers a second chance finds success

EVERETT — For some people, three months can mean the difference between a cycle of breaking the law and racking up a mountain of debt or the chance to make a fresh start.

A diversion program offered to people caught driving with a suspended license is saving taxpayers thousands of dollars and helping people earn back their driver’s licenses, according to officials with the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

The new program also may be saving lives, officials said.

People driving with a suspended licenses are nearly four times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash and 66 times more likely to flee the scene of an accident than people with valid driver’s licenses, said Bob Lenz, operations manager for the prosecutor’s office.

A lot of those people also are driving around without insurance, he said. Without a valid driver’s license, some people can’t get a job.

The diversion program offers some offenders an opportunity to get their license reinstated by giving them time to pay court fines and overdue child support or buy insurance instead of racking up a misdemeanor charge and more fines.

“We have a belief that everyone wants to succeed,” Lenz said. “We give them an opportunity to get out of a vicious cycle by giving them a little breathing room.”

A grant from the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission is helping fund the program.

It was designed as the prosecutor’s office looked at ways to improve how it handled cases in the county’s four district courts.

People who are convicted of driving with a suspended license are screened to determine if they are eligible for the program.

They aren’t eligible if they have any vehicle-related felony convictions, such as car theft or attempting to elude police.

They also aren’t allowed into the program if they have more than one serious criminal traffic violation, more than three other convictions for driving with a suspended license or a history of failing to show up for court hearings. They also can’t have any subsequent arrests or charges for driving with a suspended license.

If they are eligible, the potential defendants are sent a letter advising them that they have three months to get their driver’s license reinstated by the state Department of Licensing. If they do, the prosecutor’s office agrees not to file the misdemeanor charge.

“For some people not having a conviction on their record is serious motivation,” said Anna Clark, a legal assistant with district courts.

Getting their driver’s license back, for some, also means they can get a job, Lenz said.

Since the program began in October 2008, the prosecutor’s office has reviewed 3,200 suspended license cases.

Most are people who failed to pay traffic tickets, owe child support, were caught driving without insurance or haven’t paid costs associated with a traffic accident.

A majority aren’t eligible for the program. About 35 percent meet the criteria. Of those, about 45 percent successfully obtained their driver’s license.

The program is saving the costs associated with prosecuting the cases.

There’s also revenue coming in, Clark said.

People are paying thousands of dollars in fines to get their licenses back. One man paid more than $10,000 in back child support to get his driver’s license reinstated, Lenz said.

“Not only is it making highways safer, it’s helping families and more people are driving with a valid driver’s license. They don’t have to worry about being stopped,” Lenz said.

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