Four panelists sit on couches in front of a red curtain. The moderator sits on a stool to the left.
The Kansas City Community Bail Fund held an informational event for Project GreenLight on Feb. 1. A panel consisting of (from left) Chloe Cooper, Wesley McKain, Alex English and Kansas City Municipal Judge Martina Peterson spoke about the costs of driving and their desire for reform. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

In a city like Kansas City, car ownership is rarely a choice.

For decades, the city has been planned around driving. Walkable neighborhoods are scarce, sidewalks are crumbling or nonexistent in some areas of the city, and access to public transportation can be spotty.

But owning a car is not cheap — or easy. From personal property taxes and registration fees to pricey car insurance, many low-income drivers feel the cost burden on a monthly basis. Unpaid fines from parking tickets and minor traffic infractions can create mounting legal troubles. Entire groups of people, like teenagers and immigrants, are bewildered by the process of applying for a driver’s license and passing the required test.

For a multitude of reasons, the Kansas City Community Bail Fund (KCCBF) estimates that thousands of people in the area are driving with a suspended license, without insurance or with no license at all. If caught driving without a license by police, these drivers can accumulate fines and court fees that quickly snowball out of control.

The bail fund, which was created in May 2019 to help marginalized citizens post bond and navigate the legal system, wants to interrupt that cycle.

On March 1 it will launch Project GreenLight for low-income drivers in trouble. It will assist “those most in need” with paying off fines and getting their licenses reinstated. 

By bringing drivers back into compliance with the law, founders of Project GreenLight hope to lessen friction among police and drivers during traffic stops. 

“One of our goals is to reduce interactions between people of color and law enforcement,” said Chloe Cooper, the executive director of KCCBF. “There have been so many cases of police brutality that start from a traffic stop.”

A bail fund to address the cost of driving while poor

Cooper and Lauren Worley, both social workers, founded the community bail fund in 2019 because they saw how the inability to post bond created havoc for their clients. They quickly recognized the perils of driving while poor. 

“Driving is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity,” Cooper said. “When you’re poor and you have to make these choices, $100 is a lot. It’s a lot for me and for most people.”

And the cost of owning a car can be higher for people of color and those with a lower income. Lower-income and urban neighborhoods are often deemed “higher risk” by insurance companies than wealthier suburbs, and that disproportionately drives up insurance rates for low-income drivers.

Car insurance companies have also been known to discriminate against drivers who live in majority-Black neighborhoods. A ProPublica investigation in 2017 found that insurance companies in Missouri charged higher car insurance rates in majority-Black ZIP codes than majority-white ZIP codes, even when the risk was the same.

Out of financial necessity, some drivers opt to drive without car insurance. The Insurance Research Council estimates that 16% of Missouri drivers and 11% of Kansas drivers are uninsured.

If they’re caught, these drivers can have their licenses suspended. Reinstatement can require a lengthy court process and costs hundreds of dollars in fees, with additional fines for driving without a license.

Some states have stopped suspending driver’s licenses

Project GreenLight held an informational event on Feb. 1 to introduce the program. During a panel discussion, Alex English, a managing attorney at Kansas Legal Services, said that many states are reevaluating driver’s license suspension.

Twenty-two states, including Illinois, Kentucky and Colorado, have ended debt-related driving restrictions altogether. This means that they cannot suspend a driver’s license as a result of failing to pay fines and fees.

But in both Kansas and Missouri, driver’s license suspension is mandatory in these cases, and a judge has no discretion in court.

The rationale behind suspending licenses is to prompt drivers to show up in court and pay fees on time, English said. But in reality, she said, the policy doesn’t work. Instead, it can make it more difficult for drivers to pay their fines.

“When we think about why most people don’t pay their court debt, it’s not because they don’t want to. It’s not because they’re intentionally avoiding it. It’s because they don’t have funds to be able to pay for it,” English said. “There have been studies in Tennessee, Oregon and California, and they have found that driver’s license suspensions have no impact on the collection of court debt.”

Once a license is revoked, people can no longer legally drive to work to earn money. If they choose to do so anyway, they risk additional fines and court dates — which they can’t get to by driving themselves without a license. 

“The attorney that trained me about driver’s license suspensions, he called it the ‘abyss of driver’s license suspensions,’” English said. “And that’s truly what it is. It’s an abyss.”

A bill currently proposed in Kansas would return certain driving privileges to people with suspended licenses.

How do I get my suspended license reinstated?

If someone needs financial help or legal assistance to pay off court debt and have their driver’s license reinstated, Cooper encourages them to apply through the program’s website once it launches on March 1.

The program will provide financial aid and pro bono legal services to applicants who meet the criteria. They must demonstrate financial need — either by working with a social service agency that will vouch for them, or by sending in an eligibility letter for a form of government assistance, such as food stamps.

The program’s aim will be to help drivers meet every single legal requirement. Whether it’s just a single $100 fine, or if the driver needs insurance or help with registration and court fees, Project GreenLight hopes to bring its clients up to all legal standards.

The program does not yet have the resources to help undocumented immigrants with legal and financial needs, but Cooper hopes to expand their offerings soon. While the program is in its early stages, assistance is limited to drivers in Jackson County, Missouri, and Wyandotte County, Kansas. Other municipalities, like Wichita, Kansas, may offer other assistance. The Kansas Legal Services has a webpage with commonly asked questions and answers about licenses and driving laws that can help navigate the system. 

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....