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April 29, 2021

"Reckless Lawmaking: How Debt-Based Driver's License Suspension Laws Impose Harm and Waste Resources"

The title of this post is the title of this new ACLU research report.  Here is the start of its executive summary:

There is a growing movement by advocates, organizers, and lawmakers to address the ineffective and unfair system and collection of court ordered monetary obligations, or “fines and fees.”  The system of fines and fees is inextricably linked to over-policing, criminalization, and mass incarceration.  While it is nearly impossible to know the exact number of people charged with fines and fees on an annual basis due in part to a lack of standardized data collection policies, a recent study estimated there could be well over 30 million cases for misdemeanors, violations, and infractions punishable by fines and fees filed per year.  That number does not even include civil traffic offenses.  The punishment for such offenses may include hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines and fees.

When people cannot afford to pay their fines and fees on time, a warrant may be issued for their arrest and/ or their driver’s license may be suspended.  People arrested on such warrants are typically brought to jail and held until they can see a judge.  If they still cannot pay, the cycle of criminalization continues.  The system of fines and fees not only criminalizes poverty, but also exacerbates racial disparities in policing and prosecution.

Driver’s license suspension for failure to pay or failure to appear in court (i.e. debt-based suspension) is one of the most commonly imposed sanctions.  This penalty is particularly harmful because of the sheer number of people affected and because of the way these suspensions lead to further penalties.  The severity of the punishment far outweighs the underlying offense, which may not even be related to driving.  Currently, all but three states (Idaho, Mississippi, and Virginia) suspend for either failure to pay and/or failure to appear.  As a result, at least 11 million people are not allowed to drive simply because they cannot afford to pay fines and fees, while people who can afford to pay are spared. And the brunt of these policies falls disproportionately on people of color, contributing to existing racial disparities in the criminal legal system.

Since 2017, California, Hawai′i, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New York, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and D.C. have enacted legislative reforms to curb the practice of debt-based suspensions for either failure to pay or failure to appear.  As of the publication of this report, similar legislation has been proposed in 11 additional states.  Related legislation has also been introduced at the federal level.

Proposed legislation to end the harmful practice of debt-based suspensions is often met with a challenge: overcoming fiscal notes that mistakenly predict significant negative fiscal impacts from ending debt-based driver’s license suspensions.  Fiscal notes for bills to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions tend to rely on assumptions based on imprecise data and more importantly, do not account for a number of other relevant factors that could offset the revenue generated from fines and fees such as the cost of collecting and enforcing payment.  Furthermore, fiscal notes tend to deprioritize, and in some cases ignore altogether, the toll debt-based suspensions have on people affected by this policy.

In this report we highlight the individual and systemic costs that are often ignored in these types of fines and fees reform bills.  Specifically, this report discusses the penalty of suspending driver’s licenses as a consequence for unpaid fines and fees and the devastating consequences it imposes on impacted individuals.  We also make recommendations for lawmakers to more accurately consider the value of continuing to fund government services through predatory fines and fees in light of the consequent harm.

April 29, 2021 at 09:42 AM | Permalink

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