A new Phoenix Compliance Assistance Program aims to assist residents whose civil fines have led to the loss of a driver's license or worse.

A new Phoenix Compliance Assistance Program aims to assist residents whose civil fines have led to the loss of a driver’s license or worse.

This week, the City of Phoenix and its Municipal Court announced a new program that aims to counter situations that have too often have led people into financial straits and even into the justice system.

The new “Compliance Assistance Program” is “designed to give residents with past-due traffic fines a path to repay the debts and work towards restoring driving privileges.”

The past year has provided numerous examples from around the country in which residents faced financial ruin and increased interaction with police because of an accumulation of unpaid tickets, fines, and penalties. But these issues didn’t just face residents of Ferguson, Missouri, or other newsworthy places; they face residents of Arizona cities too. The Phoenix program is a salutary effort to address those problems; you can read more about it here.

As Megan Cassidy reports:

“The Compliance Assistance Program is designed to break what can become a crippling cycle of fines and subsequent driving penalties: Unpaid fines can lead to a suspended license. And driving on a suspended license can lead to criminal charges and jail time for the working poor. As of Dec. 31, Phoenix was owed more than $283 million in overdue municipal fines, fees and restitution dating back decades. As many as 6,000 people currently have their licenses suspended because of delinquent Phoenix fines.”

Phoenix City Councilwoman Kate Gallego

Phoenix City Councilwoman Kate Gallego

Quoted in the story and a key driver of the change is Phoenix City Councilwoman Kate Gallego.

“We want people to be able to pay their fines in a sustainable way,” she said. “If you push people to the brink of their financial ability, the consequences are more negative.”

New Chief Presiding Municipal Judge B. Don Taylor came into the job via a contentious process, but his advocacy for these changes is a welcome sign for a progressive court, one that has substantial daily interactions with residents. Though the program is just a first step, residents should be heartened by the actions of Judge Taylor and Councilwoman Gallego, who “said she made reforming the Municipal Court system a priority in her decision-making when the City Council selected a new presiding municipal judge last year.”

As Judge Taylor says in the Arizona Republic story, “It’s really providing a mechanism that people haven’t really had before. I think creating something that will allow them to be compliant, get the license back, really helps them be in a good place.”

If the name Don Taylor sounds familiar, it may be because he’s a longtime lawyer, former prosecutor, and even a story-subject in Arizona Attorney Magazine. In 2007, we spoke with him as he worked at the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague.

Congratulations on the new program.

Attorney B. Don Taylor in the February 2007 Arizona Attorney, describing his work at The Hague.

Attorney B. Don Taylor in the February 2007 Arizona Attorney, describing his work at The Hague.

I have written multiple times about Judge Roxanne Song Ong (here, for instance), including her commitment to the community—legal and otherwise. But now I must refer to her as retired Judge Song Ong.

As you likely already know, she was the longtime Presiding Judge of the Phoenix Municipal Court. But in November, a crowd of well-wishers said their good-byes, as the Judge heads into retirement.

Many, many folks queued up to say a few words to Judge Song Ong. Among those to take time on November 12 was Chief Justice Scott Bales.

Ariz. Chief Justice Scott Bales and Judge Roxanne Song Ong (ret.)

Ariz. Chief Justice Scott Bales and Judge Roxanne Song Ong (ret.)

As the good Judge exited stage-left, she also received another major accolade in her remarkable career: a national award from the American Judges Association. Well done, once again.

The Judge tells me that we may be seeing more of her, as she remains committed to education and mentoring in the profession. We look forward to seeing her. Congratulations and best wishes.

Jean Williams in her younger years (family photo)

In late July, I wrote about the passing of a judge and civil rights pioneer, Hon. Jean Williams.

Yesterday, the Arizona Republic ran a great profile of Judge Williams. I’d recommend it for every lawyer, and for every person interested in learning how to live a life committed to justice.

The article is written by Connie Cone Sexton. And it’s linked to a slideshow of Jean Williams’ life.

Williams’ activism in civil rights and her progress as a lawyer and judge tracks the same qualities in our own state. As Sexton reports:

After [Martin Luther] King’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn., Williams moved to Tucson, where she became the first African-American woman to practice law in the state.

“I was warned not to come here,” she said in the ’87 interview. “I was told this was Goldwater country and they would hang me off a cactus bush.”

Hon. Jean Williams, 1925-2011

Her zeal and belief in the law won people over. She became an assistant public defender in 1974 and then a judge on the Tucson City Court in 1975. In 1977, she was appointed a judge to the Phoenix Municipal Court and would serve there for about 19 years.

As her son, a prominent attorney, said of his mother, “She had the urgency of now.” That is a lesson for a movement, for a state, and for each of us.