Driver’s License Suspensions and the Debt Trap

Taking away a license over unpaid fines for minor traffic infractions makes work and family life a misery for low-income Americans. States should reform this punitive, unjust practice.

A California driver's license with the word "suspended" stamped over it in red.
(Image: Spokane Regional Transportation Council)
When Marq Mitchell’s Florida driver’s license was suspended over unpaid court fines and fees that he was not even aware of, the 30-year-old’s life was turned upside down. “I tried to pay it off over three or four years and it was hard to maintain employment while I had those fees. It would take me three hours to get to work on the bus. I was also paying more in rent because those were the places on the bus lines. I was working two jobs, and because of the unpredictability of public transportation I was often late and eventually lost both.”

Nationally, it’s estimated that as many as 11 million drivers currently have their licenses suspended. Many of these are low-income Americans who cannot afford to pay the excessive fines and fees imposed for minor infractions like unpaid parking tickets, not public safety concerns such as dangerous driving. Without a license, it’s difficult and expensive to do basic things like go to work, pick up children from school or drive to the doctor. Suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fees and fines ends up trapping Americans in an intractable cycle of poverty as their earning potential deteriorates and their debt balloons.

This unjust practice was not always the norm. Over the past decade, as state and local governments have become more hesitant to raise taxes, they have used increases in fines and fees to fill in their budget shortfalls and maintain revenue. This approach is deeply regressive and puts the burden on the members of society for whom a parking ticket for $25 or $50 can mean that their family could have to go without a meal. Twenty-five dollars may not sound like much, but that amount would be difficult to pay for a full-time worker who makes the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or $290 a week, and is likely living paycheck to paycheck. A 2019 analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice also found that this is an inefficient source of revenue since many state and local governments spend more on the administrative costs of collecting the fines and fees than is ultimately raised.

The harms of debt-based driver’s license suspensions do not impact all Americans the same. Eighty-nine percent of rural Americans do not have access to public transportation and must drive to get to work. Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to get pulled over and have their licenses revoked, although they commit traffic violations at similar rates as other groups. For example, in Oregon, although Black and Hispanic residents make up only 4 percent of the population, they are hit with more than a quarter of charges for driving with a suspended license.

Recognizing that excessive fees and fines are punishing low-income Americans and trapping them in debt, states including Maryland and Washington have recently passed legislation to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions. However, 35 states and the District of Columbia still suspend, revoke or refuse to renew driver’s licenses over unpaid fines and fees. This March, U.S. Senators Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, and Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, reintroduced the bipartisan Driving for Opportunity Act to nudge more states to follow suit, offering federal grants for those that end debt-based driver’s license suspensions. This much-needed legislation has been backed by a broad coalition of advocates.

There are additional steps that can be taken to help prevent other related debt and poverty traps. First, state and local governments can offer incentives for drivers who are delinquent in their debts, especially those with very old balances who are unlikely or unable to pay, by issuing ticket amnesty programs that allow residents to pay a fraction of what they owe to clear their records, as D.C. did in 2011. Second, to make the financial impact of parking tickets and other non-dangerous infractions less regressive, states could institute a sliding scale that would determine the amount of the fine or fee based on an individual’s ability to pay. And third, states and courts should stop jailing people who cannot afford to pay fines and fees — an extreme punishment that makes little economic sense.

Debt-based driver’s license suspensions are one of the most pervasive poverty traps in America. It’s well past time for Congress to take action by passing the Driving for Opportunity Act and for state and local governments to reform punitive fines and fees.

Marq Mitchell turned his personal challenges into an opportunity to effect change in his community. He is the founder and chief executive officer of Chainless Change, a Florida-based nonprofit working on criminal justice reform and re-entry. “Being able to drive again changed my life,” he says. “I’ve been able to maintain jobs and find more affordable housing. When my license was suspended, it was really tough. Everything in my life was determined by my ability to drive.”

Veronica Goodman is the director of social policy for the Progressive Policy Institute.


Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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