Thursday afternoon was not a time for Racine Municipal Court Judge Rebecca K. Mason to determine the guilt or innocence ofthe defendants in her courtroom in the City Hall Annex.
Instead, she presided over a first-time session billed as drivers license recovery day. The objective was to help safe drivers whose licenses have been suspended by the city for nonpayment of forfeitures find a way to regain their driving privileges.
Diana Valencia, a community activist, who observed the proceedings, noted that lack of a driver’s license can be a “barrier to employment” for many people.
Judge Mason modeled the session after a similar successful effort in Milwaukee.
In an interview before the hearings began, she said that she has previously worked with safe drivers on a way to recover their license on an ad hoc basis. While only four people scheduled appointments for Thursday afternoon, others stopped in without appointments.
“Hundreds” of people had called to inquire about getting their license back, but because their suspensions were not by the city Judge Mason could not help them other than giving them contact information for other those other jurisdictions.
The slippery slope of losing a driver’s license
She said that licenses are often suspended for non-payment of traffic tickets. In addition to paying the ticket, people with a suspended license do not always realize they also have to pay a $60 reinstatement fee to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“We don’t have great public transportation in this community. It’s hard for people to get to school and appointments without a vehicle. Then they get pulled over (again) and it’s a snowball effect,” she said.
Felisha Jackson said her license was suspended after another driver sideswiped her car and she was ticketed for not signaling a turn. She has accumulated seven tickets since June 30, “driving to work, taking my kids to school, going where I need to go, doing my daily duties. I knew I was at fault for driving without a driver’s license but I had to get to work, I had to get my kid to school.”
Judge Mason suggested she contact the villages who issued her tickets to ask to have her case reopened to have her citations reduced to zero points so she would not be suspended. The judge remarked, “You are a poster child for this issue. For the most part, you are a safe driver, the driving without a driver’s license keeps piling up.”
Helping people make things right
Another defendant was a 17-year-old boy whose license was suspended because he has two truancy tickets, no insurance, and one citation for operating without a valid driver’s license. He appeared with his mother and they worked out a payment plan with the judge. However, Judge Mason said she did not want the mother paying the fines.
“We’ve had some snow,” she said. “Maybe you can knock on doors and shovel. Where there’s a will there is a way. This is your one chance to do this. If you miss one payment, the suspension goes back into effect and the deal is off. You need to take a driver’s education class and pay the reinstatement fee. When you do that, be a safe driver, I don’t want to see you back here.”
The judge then asked him where he attends school. “I am not in school.” She asked why not. “I fell behind but I am working on my GED.” She urged him to continue his education. “It’s tough to make it in the world without that.”
Judge Mason said she likes the idea of having a community court.
“It makes it onerous to have to go to (up to) four different courts. She has talked to Sam Christensen, the county clerk of circuit courts, about having a joint session, perhaps at Festival Hall. He likes the idea, she said, but technical issues may preclude such a session. Valencia suggested a session at the Racine Youthful Offenders Correctional Facility on N. Memorial Drive. However, municipal computers with information such as driver’s local records are on secure servers and generally cannot be used in remote locations.
A dozen drivers came to court by day’s end. Valencia liked what she saw.
“I am impressed. It’s nice to see that the people are going away with an understanding of what to do,” she said. “If they cannot fix it here, their questions are being answered, the how-to, the what to do next.”
Indeed. As Judge Mason told Terivia Tyler, “We’re here to help with that today.”