The Washington Post editorial board weighed in recently about the unfair practice of suspending driver’s licenses over nonpayment of court fines and fees, calling the policy “self-defeating” to public safety.
Last week, the Senate introduced the bipartisan Driving for Opportunity Act to create incentives to stop debt-based driver’s license suspensions. Read more about the pros of its passage from the editorial:
It intensifies pressure on individuals already struggling with job loss and financial hardship, and it adds strain to relations between police officers and the public they serve. It makes the slope of failure even more slippery for millions of the most vulnerable Americans. And it’s the law of the land in 42 states.
Incredibly, an estimated 11 million people nationwide are believed to have lost their driver’s licenses because of debts owed to or ordered by the government, often for offenses having nothing to do with motor vehicle safety, like minor drug offenses or missed payments for child support — not for unsafe or drunk driving. That’s roughly 1 in every 20 drivers, a cohort tilted heavily toward people of color. For those whose licenses are suspended, the effect is to set a poverty trap while doing nothing to enhance public safety.
Several states, as well as the District of Columbia, have halted such license suspensions, including, just since 2018, Montana, Virginia, West Virginia, Idaho and Mississippi. Elsewhere, however, the practice persists on autopilot, either unexamined or because states, indifferent to soaking the poor, regard it as an effective way to raise revenue for state and local coffers.
The costs of that policy are steep and overlooked. Take away driving privileges from someone already too strapped by debt to cover basic living costs, and it may become impossible for that person to get to work and hold down a job. Or, if the person drives anyway — as most do, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators — they face the risk of fines and months of jail time.
Under the status quo in states that suspend licenses for non-payments, police face the additional burden of being expected to enforce those suspensions; forced into the role of debt collectors, they then become the subject of additional resentment and hostility. In 2015 alone, Washington state troopers spent 70,848 hours dealing with license suspensions for non-driving offenses, according to the state’s own calculations. How does that advance public safety or welfare, especially during a pandemic?
In the Senate, a bill that would encourage states to repeal such laws was introduced this month. In a hopeful sign, a Republican and a Democrat are its two main sponsors: Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).
The measure offers modest incentives to do the right thing. Congress would authorize $20 million a year over the next five years to help states cover the costs of making the change. And the bill would end a major federal incentive for states to do the wrong thing: a measure that slashes highway funding for states that fail to suspend licenses.
Advocates across the ideological spectrum — the Koch network to the ACLU — support the bill, known as the Driving for Opportunity Act. And no wonder: It doesn’t take much explaining to see that punishing poverty is a losing strategy, and one this country can ill afford.
The Duke Center for Science and Justice published a paper earlier this year about driver’s license suspensions in North Carolina, where there are more than 1.2 million active suspensions for non-driving related reasons, relating to failure to pay traffic fines and court courts, and failure to appear in court for traffic offenses. Read the fact sheet about it here.