Reconsidering Driver's License Suspensions As Punishment

Suspending a driver's license is a common punishment for many offenses, but critics say the practice contributes to the cycle of poverty. The Atlantic Cities reporter Mike Riggs explains.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to turn to what some Florida lawmakers believe is an overlooked problem in their criminal justice system - unnecessary driver's license suspensions. A report from The Atlantic Cities highlighted that almost 700,000 Floridians lost their driving privileges last year. Critics of the policy say that losing a driver's license can turn a small scrape with the law into a major financial crisis and actually contributes to the cycle of poverty. Florida is not the only place where this is causing concern, however. So here to tell us more is Mike Riggs, who wrote about the issue for The Atlantic Cities. And he's with us now. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

MIKE RIGGS: Yeah, thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, about 680,000 drivers had their licenses suspended in Florida just last year. And over 100,000 of those people were non - those people committed offenses that were non-driving related. Could you talk a little bit about that? What were some of those offenses and why is it that the driver's license is tied to those?

RIGGS: Sure - failure to pay child support, a drug conviction - even if it's not related to a car at all - an unpaid parking ticket, an unpaid speeding ticket, a failure to show up to a court appearance. There's a long list, basically, of offenses that if you - you know, if you commit them, the first step is not incarceration necessarily, it's suspending the driver's license.

MARTIN: And you were finding that this happens across the country. How did Florida's numbers compare with those of other states?

RIGGS: You know, because this is sort of - it's not just an underlooked problem in Florida so it's kind of hard to compare state to state. But New Jersey released a report in 2007, in which they said about -between 4 and 5 percent of suspensions were totally unrelated to driving. Florida's number is actually over 20 percent.

MARTIN: And in Montana you said that you can get your license suspended for unpaid student loans, but they also suspend occupational licenses. In Iowa, you can have your license suspended for public drunkenness outside of a car. And you mentioned that unpaid child support, writing bad checks, misdemeanor theft charges are also offenses that can lead to license suspension. Now the Florida figures come from Florida's legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Now so talk about the criticism of this - why is it surfacing now - that this issue is surfacing now and that people feel that this actually has unintended negative consequences?

RIGGS: I mean, I think across-the-board Americans are rethinking the criminal justice system and its huge impact on families and people's lives and ability to work. And in Florida, which is a state that's super heavy on driving - I mean, public transportation - there's some available in Miami, there's some available in Orlando, but these systems serve a very small portion of the population. So you're looking at at state that's trying to recover from, you know, the mortgage collapse, you look around - who would ever think that it was driver's license suspensions. That somebody who couldn't pay a $150 ticket, that ticket then doubles because it's late, suddenly they can't pay it at all and the court's responses is we're taking away your driver's license.

MARTIN: What is the problem, though? I mean, there are some people who would be listening to this and say, well, that's better than being locked up - so you have to take the bus, it's an inconvenience. What's the problem?

RIGGS: I think the problem is it just - imagine - there's so many jobs that you can't get without a driver's license. Imagine you're applying for a job, you're filling out a job application - do you have a valid driver's license? The answer is no. Well, an employer is going to look at you and say you're not reliable, you can't get to a construction site, you can't get to the hospital to be a nurse, you can't - you know, you can't drive a bus, you can't drive a dump truck, you can't drive a post office truck. So there's just a lot of jobs that you can't have without a driver's license.

MARTIN: But, again, I think some might argue that that's why it's a disincentive to not observe these laws. What are the critics saying? I mean, the critics are saying that - you talk a little bit about, like, the unpaid parking ticket and it then escalates into - what? Talk a little bit more about that.

RIGGS: Yeah, I think the critic's response to this is that if somebody can't pay this initial fine or this initial court fee, you're not going to increase the likelihood that they can pay it by taking away their driver's license. You know, and this is - you know, if somebody can't pay $150 when they're working for a minimum wage job or working part-time, they're definitely not going to be able to pay if they don't work - same goes for child support, same goes for alimony, same goes for showing up to a court appearance. And if you look at - in Florida in particular, the average bus ride in Orlando, for instance, for somebody commuting to work using the LYNX bus system is 90 minutes. That's an incredible amount of time. If you give yourself plus or minus 15, plus or minus 20 from day-to-day, how can an employer expect you to be a consistent employee?

MARTIN: Are certain people more likely to be affected by this than others? Have you observed?

RIGGS: In Florida, the Miami-Dade, for instance, is the most heavily-populated county in the state. More than 70,000 suspensions last year were of Hispanics, more than 42,000 were African-Americans, and only around 15,000 were whites. The New Jersey Department of Transportation, in 2007, found that the majority were African-American. The Brookings Institution did a report in Georgia a few years ago, they also found the same thing.

MARTIN: Is there any discretion here? I mean, does anybody - is part of the problem here that this is automatic? I mean, that this is an automatic sanction that applies if the circumstances are - you know, you don't pay the parking ticket within 30 days or 60 days, the fine doubles, if you don't pay it after a certain point then automatically you get your license suspended. Is there any opportunity to plead your case to say - to go to any decision-making body, a judge, an administrative law judge and say, look, if you suspend my license, I can't get to work and I'll never be able to pay this? Is there any opportunity to plead this case or is part of the problem that there's no procedure and it just happens?

RIGGS: You know, there's an opportunity to appeal almost everything that can happen in your criminal justice system, but that also - you know, do you have representation or are you relying on a public defender or how do you paid a lawyer if you can't even pay these court fees? There's such a thing as a hardship license in most states, which when you've had your license suspended, regardless of whether it's a driving or a non-driving related offense, you can get a special license to get to work and occasionally to the hospital.

But again, you know, there's a - the suspension is automatic, the process for reversing it or mitigating its effects is complicated. There's a lot of hoops to jump through. So the system is set up to have all these bounties sort of kick in. To reverse them requires a lot of work. And again, if we're looking at people who, you know, are traditionally underserved by government, can we really expect them to just know automatically, well, here's how I get my license back?

MARTIN: Right, this is how you write a letter, this is where the letter goes, this is what you need to say - you know, how would they. So are there any states that are taking another look at this? You mentioned that we are in a moment where a lot of people from both the political right and the political left are looking at the costs of these and the economic impact of some of these sanctions that have been kind of the go-to sanctions for people looking for ways to intervene in certain negative cycles - like not paying child support, for example - and they're looking for something to do and now people are revisiting these things.

Are there places where people are taking a fresh look at this and coming up with a different approach?

RIGGS: Wisconsin and Georgia have both over the last decade looked at what can we do. I mean, assuming that we have to have some sort of disincentive for people not paying parking tickets, not paying child support. They looked at things at making fines and fees, putting them on a payment schedule that's sort of proportionate to income or replace fines and fees altogether with community service. And that's actually the step that they're getting ready to take in Florida that they're considering - a member of the Florida legislator from Miami-Dade has suggested using public service instead of fines.

MARTIN: I'm curious to know what kind of reaction you're getting to your reporting in this area because often times whenever you revisit kind of a criminal justice framework or a way that people are used to looking at something like this, people think, oh, you're just soft, you know, you're being soft, you're not taking it seriously - whereas, you know, often these are people who are not necessarily affected by the policies directly and are kind of removed from it. What kind of reaction are you getting to the reporting in this area?

RIGGS: You know, I think the trend overall is let's go with what works, and that's why you're seeing some things like drug courts and prison diversion take off. There's still a really vocal minority that says these people did something wrong, we need to punish them with whatever we can punish them. But, you know, we're talking more about proportionality. We're talking more about we want to punish them and then after they're punished, we want them to be contributing members of society so let's make sure that this is a punishment that people can recover from.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for your work in this area, it's interesting. Mike Riggs is a writer for The Atlantic Cities. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Mike, thanks for joining us.

RIGGS: Thank you.

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