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Driver’s License Suspensions Perpetuate the Challenges of Criminal Justice Debt

Driver’s license suspensions can lead to unnecessary incarceration so some lawmakers are taking steps to reduce this counterproductive reliance.

  • Jessica Eaglin
April 30, 2015

Cross-posted on the Amer­ican Consti­tu­tion Soci­ety Blog

Protests in Ferguson, Mo. led to invest­ig­a­tions that uncovered a deeply prob­lem­atic justice system that pulled thou­sands of people into a web of crim­inal justice debt and aggress­ive debt collec­tion prac­tices. Among those harsh enforce­ment prac­tices: Driver’s license suspen­sion for fail­ure to pay court-imposed debts. Using driver’s license suspen­sion to enforce debt payment is not unique to Ferguson. Today, driver’s license suspen­sions are a frequently used tool to enforce collec­tion of crim­inal justice debt.

Crim­inal justice debt” refers to the accu­mu­la­tion of fees and fines that a defend­ant acquires while being processed through the justice system. Fees and fines may be imposed for anything from resti­tu­tion to make the victim whole to punit­ive fines designed to deter future wrong­do­ings. Most commonly, courts impose user fees to recover oper­at­ing costs. These fees are imposed at vari­ous stages through­out the process; includ­ing charges for book­ings, jail stays, prosec­u­tion, public defense and proba­tion services.

Fees and fines do not disap­pear once a person has been convicted and incar­cer­ated. Rather, those costs linger. When combined with other debts most people face – credit card debt, child support and insur­ance payments, for example – the addi­tional costs of crim­inal justice debt can be diffi­cult or impossible to pay. In Cali­for­nia alone, there is more than $10 billion in uncol­lec­ted, court-ordered debt.

Enter collec­tion enforce­ment, such as suspen­sion of a driver’s license. It is grow­ing in popular­ity. In 2010, the Bren­nan Center repor­ted that at least eight of the 15 states with the largest prison popu­la­tions suspen­ded licenses based on missed debt payments: Cali­for­nia, Flor­ida, Louisi­ana, Michigan, North Caro­lina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. At least four states suspen­ded licenses for fail­ure to appear in court for an arrest warrant, the under­ly­ing cause being fail­ure to pay debts. In the Lone Star state, indi­vidu­als convicted of a drug offense have their licenses suspen­ded for 180 days. In Flor­ida, a drug convic­tion leads to license suspen­sion for one year. Nation­ally, 40 percent of license suspen­sions are for unpaid traffic tick­ets, unpaid child support and drug offenses.

Driver’s license suspen­sion for fail­ure to pay child support is partic­u­larly troub­ling. All 50 states have stat­utory or admin­is­trat­ive provi­sions to suspend licenses for not comply­ing with child support orders. In Virginia, for example, a 2011 bill author­ized the Depart­ment of Social Services to suspend a license for delin­quent child support payments and prohib­ited rein­state­ment until delin­quency is paid in full. Michigan, too, has a bill to suspend a driver’s license if a parent is behind in payments.

Suspen­sions are coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive, as the enforce­ment mech­an­ism actu­ally inhib­its future repay­ment of debt. Suspend­ing a person’s license impedes one’s abil­ity to main­tain employ­ment and earn money to satisfy the debt.  It can also complic­ate attend­ing court appear­ances. The Justice Depart­ment’s recent report on Ferguson profiled a woman facing a driver’s license suspen­sion. She explained, “I am a hard work­ing mother of two chil­dren and I cannot by any means take care of my family or work with my license being suspen­ded and unable to drive.” This woman is not alone. In one of Milwau­kee’s poor neigh­bor­hoods, two out of three African Amer­ican men of work­ing age does not have a license, repor­ted NPR in 2015. In Cali­for­nia, more than 17 percent of adults have suspen­ded licenses that “make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, harm credit ratings and raise public safety concerns.”

Driver’s license suspen­sion can lead to unne­ces­sary incar­cer­a­tion, too. It is uncon­sti­tu­tional to incar­cer­ate a person for fail­ure to pay court-debts because he or she cannot pay; never­the­less, people are often incar­cer­ated for fail­ure to adhere to debt collec­tion enforce­ment prac­tices. Driv­ing with a suspen­ded license leads to substan­tial fees, possible jail time, addi­tional suspen­sion time or license revoc­a­tion – all of which can prolong a person’s entan­gle­ment with the justice system and increase someone’s chances of being incar­cer­ated for other offenses stem­ming from nonpay­ment, like contempt of court.  

License suspen­sion can be a valu­able enforce­ment tool, partic­u­larly for those who commit offenses related to unsafe driv­ing prac­tices. Someone driv­ing under the influ­ence of alco­hol or with repeated, seri­ous moving viol­a­tions should face suspen­sion of their license to ensure public safety. But using driver’s license suspen­sion to enforce debt collec­tion – with no other rela­tion to the offense – creates more chal­lenges to the offender than it’s worth.

Some lawmakers are taking steps to reduce coun­ter­pro­duct­ive reli­ance on driver’s license suspen­sions. Here are some examples:

  • In St. Paul,  Minn., Ramsey County Prosec­utor John Choi  piloted the Driv­ing Diver­sion Program in 2009 to assist indi­vidu­als charged with driv­ing after suspen­sion earn back their license while keep­ing a tempor­ary license.  
  • In Wiscon­sin, Milwau­kee offi­cials created the Center for Driver’s License Recov­ery and Employ­ab­il­ity in 2007 to connect people with services and help regain licenses.
  • In 2012, Wash­ing­ton stopped suspend­ing licenses for fail­ure to pay nonmov­ing traffic viol­a­tions. Suspen­sions have fallen by half, accord­ing to a recent New York Times article.
  • In Cali­for­nia, new legis­la­tion – Senate Bill 405 – would require counties to create amnesty programs for people with outstand­ing crim­inal justice debts. It would also require the DMV to restore driv­ing priv­ileges to those in the program.  

These reforms are great steps toward redu­cing the chal­lenges of crim­inal justice debt. Here’s another: Impose fees and fines in line with what an offender can actu­ally pay. Rather than creat­ing diver­sion and debt forgive­ness programs, meas­ure an indi­vidu­al’s abil­ity to pay the debts before provid­ing altern­at­ives to cope with non-will­ful nonpay­ment. As courts increas­ingly struggle to address crim­inal justice debt, this analysis will prove even more potent.