A Virginia driver's license is seen in this sample provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles. (Virginia DMV)

Virginia’s governor announced plans this week to stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees, a change that could affect more than 600,000 people.

A Washington Post analysis earlier this year found that more than 7 million people nationwide may have had their driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay court or administrative debt, a practice that advocates say unfairly punishes the poor. A spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles said 626,537 drivers had their licenses suspended as of Dec. 1 for failure to pay such costs.

The state Department of Planning and Budget said about 276,000 licenses were suspended in 2017 alone.

On Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced plans to members of the General Assembly to end the practice by changing policy at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The General Assembly would have to approve the change.

“No longer will Virginia suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid court costs and fees,” Northam said in prepared remarks. “Often, people don’t pay court costs because they can’t afford it. Suspending their license for these unpaid fees makes it that much harder on them.”

Northam’s proposal comes as lawmakers around the country have sought to end the practice, which was widely criticized after the Justice Department found law enforcement acting as collection agents in Ferguson, Mo., in 2015.

In August, Virginia state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) proposed a bill that would end license suspensions for drivers who fail to pay fines and costs. This week, Stanley praised Northam’s plans.

“I’m glad that he’s thinking like me,” Stanley said.

Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said license suspensions make it more difficult for residents to be productive citizens.

“You can’t earn money to pay fines and fees if you can’t drive to work, especially if you live in an area with limited or no access to public transportation,” she said in an email.

In 2016, the Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents low-
income Virginians, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Western Virginia, saying more than 940,000 people in the state had their licenses suspended for nonpayment of fees and fines.

Among the plaintiffs was a Charlottesville man who said he lost his license in 2012 after he did not pay fines for three traffic infractions. He continued to drive while battling lymphoma, receiving more citations for driving with a suspended license, followed by jail time.

In a statement Tuesday, Angela Ciolfi, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center, praised the governor’s plans and the pending bill.

“We’re immensely grateful that Governor Northam has taken this important step to pave the way for such important common-sense legislation,” Ciolfi said. “Bipartisan support for the bill spans the wide political spectrum, both inside and outside the General Assembly building, which is a good indicator that this issue’s time has come.”

Yarmosky said that money from fees and fines helps to fund trauma centers in Virginia and that about $9 million in lost revenue would come from the state’s general fund.

This story has been updated to indicate that the General Assembly would need to approve the change.