There’s a fundamental disconnect in the suspension of driver’s licenses to punish people who lack the money to pay their court costs and fines. If they can’t pay, taking away their ability to get to work and earn a paycheck is virtually assured to put them further behind on their payments.
Yet judges across the country continue to use license suspensions as a form of punishment even when the offense has nothing to do with driving. Such penalties can only lead to a never-ending cycle of indebtedness and legal problems.
According to 2016 Census Bureau figures, more than 76% of Americans commute alone for their jobs each day. Like it or not, when it comes to getting to work, we are a car-dependent nation. For those whose access to a car is the only thing standing between them and poverty, a suspended driver’s license can prove to be the financial breaking point.
Jamie Wesley was particularly dependent on his license for his livelihood. He got a job as a long-haul truck driver after finishing a 12-year sentence. While in prison, the Post-Dispatch’s Tony Messenger reported, Wesley’s child-support debts mounted. His children are now adults, and the urgency of those child-support payments was long past.
But the State of Missouri didn’t care. While Wesley was on the road in Michigan, the boss at his trucking company got word that the Missouri Department of Social Services had forced suspension of Wesley’s license for failing to pay his child-support debt. He was fired and forced to sit on the side of the road until someone came to drive him home.
A 2017 study by The Marshall Project listed 43 states plus the District of Columbia as permitting driver’s-license suspensions as a method to enforce debt collection. Three states have since ended the practice. Others have kept it, and hardly limit it to child-support payments. Any unpaid court debt will do.
The result for those like Wesley is a “Catch-22” situation. If they fail to pay the debt, they risk being returned to jail or prison. And if they continue driving on a suspended license, they also risk reincarceration and/or fines. Either way, the defendant’s ability to pay only grows more dubious.
In New Jersey, one 2011 study found, 42 percent of those who lost their licenses wound up losing their jobs as well. A Minnesota woman’s $135 traffic fine reportedly wound up mushrooming to a $13,000 court debt.
State legislatures can fix this by eliminating license suspensions as a draconian form of debt collection. Wealthier people tend to pay their fines quickly because the hassle of not paying far outweighs other considerations. So these penalties wind up serving as a special tax aimed specifically at the poor, helping ensure they’ll never escape poverty and legal entanglements. That’s not justice; it’s sadism.