Congress should help states end drivers’ license suspensions for nonpayment of fines and fees
by Anne Kim, Vice President, Domestic Policy | Progressive Policy Institute
For many Americans, one traffic ticket could be all it takes to derail their financial security — and perhaps even their livelihood.
Loathe to raise taxes, many states and cities are increasingly relying on fines and fees — whether for traffic offenses, court costs or misdemeanors such as littering — to fill their coffers. The amounts demanded are often exorbitant, and fall disproportionately on low-and moderate-income Americans who can least afford to pay. In California, for instance, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights found that a $100 traffic ticket can ultimately cost a motorist as much as $815 after various surcharges, “administrative” fees and late penalties are factored in — a cripplingly large figure even for someone who is relatively wealthy.
To add insult to injury, nonpayment of fines and fees can result in the suspension of a drivers’ license in more than 40 states. It’s a draconian penalty with far-reaching and often disastrous consequences for many Americans — and is counterproductive for states to boot.
In April, I wrote about George Henry, a Baltimore man who was striving to rebuild his life after a stint in prison. Henry was learning new skills as a trainee at the Civic Works Center for Sustainable Careers and looking forward to a career in weatherization. But holding him back was a suspended license — the result of about $700 in traffic fines still owed when he left prison. Caseworkers at Civics Works ultimately helped him get his license back, in a process that took months to complete. But had he not gotten this help, finding and keeping a job without the ability to legally drive would have been close to impossible.
The tragedy is that for every person like George Henry who gets help, there are thousands of Americans who don’t. One analysis by the Washington Post estimated that as many as 7 million Americans have lost their licenses due to unpaid fines and fees.
Suspending drivers’ licenses for nonpayment of fines and fees is terrible public policy. It’s especially nonsensical to suspend someone’s license for fines and fees owed for offenses that are completely unrelated to someone’s driving behavior, such as for littering or for court costs. Losing a drivers’ license can lead to the loss of a job, or it can force some people to drive illegally in order to get to work. In fact, a 2013 report by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators finds that as many as 75 percent of people with suspended licenses continue to drive. Reinstating a license is also time-consuming and expensive (often involving yet more fees).
Moreover, there’s little evidence that taking someone’s license prompts people to pay off the fines and fees they owe — if anything, people are even less likely to pay if their finances worsen because of a job loss related to their inability to drive. California, for instance, reported $12.3 billion in uncollected court debt in 2016.
The right public policies are for states (1) to ban drivers’ license suspensions for nonpayment of fines and fees; and (2) to reform fines and fees to account for ability to pay or to replace them with nonmonetary penalties such as community service.
A growing number of states, such as Massachusetts, Georgia, Delaware, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, have eliminated some or all automatic license suspensions for certain offenses, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Other jurisdictions, such as the city of San Francisco, are pursuing comprehensive fines and fees reform.
Because these issues primarily require state level change, federal options are relatively limited. There are, however, a couple things Congress can do to accelerate action in the states.
For starters, Congress can repeal an outdated provision in federal law — the so-called Solomon-Lautenberg Amendment — that requires states to suspend or revoke the drivers’ licenses of people convicted of federal drug offenses or risk losing 8 percent of their federal highway funding. States can “opt out” of this requirement — which 10 states have done — but this requires a certified statement by the governor and proactive action by the legislature.
Ending Solomon-Lautenberg has broad support. In 2017, Congressman (and now presidential candidate) Beto O’Rourke introduced the Better Drive Act to repeal Solomon-Lautenberg, a proposal that won the support of more than two dozen organizations, including the NAACP, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Prison Policy Initiative. Cosponsors spanned the ideological spectrum, from liberals such as Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) to conservatives such as Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI) and James Sensenbrenner (R-WI). As polarized as our politics have become, this reform is not only sensible but doable.
The second thing Congress can do is to appropriate a small pot of money to encourage state-level pilot projects on fines and fees reform. This money could, for instance, encourage states to experiment with income-based fines and fees structures or to replace license suspensions with other mechanisms to ensure enforcement of payment.
In Phoenix, Arizona, for instance, the Phoenix Municipal Court implemented an innovative program allowing defendants whose licenses have been suspended to negotiate a more affordable payment plan in exchange for the restoration of their licenses. According to a 2016 task force on fines and fees reform convened by the Arizona Supreme Court, this effort benefited as many as 5,200 defendants in its first four months while helping the city collect more than $2.3 million in outstanding penalties. Federal funding could help more jurisdictions study and copy this kind of success.
Congress has unquestionably made great strides in criminal justice reform in recent years, including with the recent bipartisan passage of the First Step Act, which overhauled sentencing laws, among other reforms. Now it’s time for the next step, which is to end the criminalization of poverty through the imposition of fines and fees that poor Americans cannot afford and the consequent deprivation of their means to earn a livelihood when they cannot pay.