America's cruel way to punish poor debtors: take away their driver's license
(by Peter Edelman)
Across the United States, many jurisdictions use this cruel method to coerce payment from people who owe fines and fees to the state. State and local governments do this in large part to balance their books in the face of dwindling tax revenues, heedless of the fact that it makes it much more difficult for the working poor to get to the jobs they need to pay off their debts.
People with means can often forestall suspensions by paying fines and fees, but those without means are trapped in the vicious circle of repeated suspensions and ever deepening debt.
California is the leader and all-time champion in taking away driver’s licenses. As of 2015, more than four million Californians had lost their driver’s licenses for some kind of fine that they did not pay on time, often for an infraction that had nothing to do with driving. That is more than one out of six adult Californians.
The use of suspensions accelerated during the Great Recession: as government revenues went down, fines and fees went up, courts pushed harder on collections, and more people could not pay because they had lost their jobs—so now they lost their licenses, too.
People of color paid the highest price. In Oakland, where black people make up less than a third of the city’s population, 60% of those who lose their licenses are African American. Likewise, African Americans account for 6% of San Francisco’s population but comprised 70.4% of clients who came to an arrest and conviction clinic convened by the San Francisco Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in 2014. Statewide, African Americans are 60% more likely than non-Hispanic whites to lose their licenses, and Hispanics are 20% more likely.
Other states also suspend driver’s licenses with abandon. Florida has about 700,000 residents who have lost their licenses, Texas about 1.2 million. When people in those states have unmanageable debts due to repeated arrests for driving on a suspended license, the next step is jail.
Florida suspends licenses without any inquiry as to whether the person is able to pay the underlying debt, and it sends people to prison for five years when they have been arrested three times for driving on a suspended license. Florida’s Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said at a conference I attended at the White House, “Florida loves to suspend driver’s licenses. If you spit on the street you lose your license.”
As in California, suspensions are rarely confined to traffic infractions. Montana suspends licenses for unpaid student loans. Iowa suspends for public drunkenness, with no car involved. Other states suspend for writing bad checks, graffiti, and littering.
In 2012, Tennessee added a category of suspensions for non-traffic-related offenses and now has 90,000 suspensions in that category to go with its 170,000 suspensions for traffic-related offenses.
A study by Robert Eger III of the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, California, reported that at least 18 states suspend for not paying the fines on non-driving traffic violations, adding up to 40% of all license suspensions nationally.
The story of license suspensions in the US reveals the extent of the injury states are willing to inflict on low-income people in order to balance their books. For many people, there is no way out of the trap of not being able to work because you have had your license suspended, and not being able to get your license reinstated because you can’t work and pay your fines.