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Losing your driver's license is a serious penalty, but often drivers lose it for things that have nothing to do with unsafe driving, like the failure to pay court fines. That is a penalty that hurts poor people the most and can even keep them stuck in poverty. NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Here are the penalties for serious driving offenses in Wisconsin - if you get caught drunk driving, it's your first offense, you lose your license for nine months. For hit-and-run driving -
JOHN PAWASARAT: Well, you get one-year revocation for that.
SHAPIRO: That's researcher John Pawasarat.
PAWASARAT: Even though they've left an accident causing bodily harm, they get a revocation for one year.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: But, get this - if you don't pay the ticket for a minor driving offense, you lose your license for two years. Like, if you get stopped for driving with a broken tail light, but then you don't pay.
PAWASARAT: It's well beyond any other penalty.
SHAPIRO: So hit-and-run driver - 12 months, broken tail light, don't pay the ticket - 24 months. Does this make sense?
PAWASARAT: It's an incredible policy, a policy of punishing people who can't pay their fines.
SHAPIRO: It's a policy we found repeated in states across the country. People who don't pay their court fines, for nonviolent offenses - mostly for driving violations - get their driver's license suspended. It's a twist on an NPR investigation that we called "Guilty And Charged." That showed the rise of court fines and fees and how the costs - that can reach hundreds or even thousands of dollars per person - most hurt poor people, like the people who live in this neighborhood.
PAWASARAT: We're pretty much in the heart of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods.
SHAPIRO: Pawasarat runs the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He studies these neighborhoods, block by block, to understand the barriers to getting a job, like having your driver's license suspended and how losing it can set off a spiral of bad consequences for the poorest people.
PAWASARAT: Two out of three African-American men in this neighborhood of working age don't have a driver's license and are consequently unable to access the jobs that are beyond the bus line.
MCARTHUR EDWARDS: If you have a suspended license, man, it hinders you because most jobs are not in the inner city nowadays. So the inner-city jobs that we have are not able to provide for our families.
SHAPIRO: That's McArthur Edwards. He was stopped by police and ticketed for driving with a broken light over his back license plate. When he didn't pay the $64 fine, his driver's license was suspended for two years. He kept driving and got more tickets. He's 29 now. From time to time, he gets hired to work in warehouses around the city, but those are temporary jobs, often at around minimum wage. This month he doesn't have enough money to pay both the landlord and the light bill. He wants to be a good father to his four children.
EDWARDS: And I want my kids to look up to me. I want my kids to be like, man, my father did that, you know, or I need these or I want these or the school said I needed this and I can't afford to buy it or I can't provide for my children, you know? I don't want that to be that way.
SHAPIRO: Recently, he responded to ads for long-distance truck drivers. Two companies promised to train him, but not until he's got a valid driver's license. So he came to the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability, where lawyers and caseworkers helped him get his license. They arranged for him to pay off $600 on the $1,800 he owed then cleared the rest with community service at the food pantry.
ANGELA CATANIA: All right, so you had your road test last week, correct?
SHAPIRO: Case manager Angela Catania helps him with the last step - to set up the road test he needs to pass.
CATANIA: OK, and how did that go?
EDWARDS: It went fine from my point of view.
EDWARDS: But I failed it.
CATANIA: Do you have another one rescheduled?
SHAPIRO: Statistics from Wisconsin's Department of Transportation show that the most common reason people lose their license is because they don't pay the fine on a ticket for a non-moving traffic offense. Those make up 56 percent of all suspensions in Wisconsin. Nationwide, one study found similar numbers - about 40 percent of suspensions are for unpaid traffic tickets and for things like not paying child support or getting caught with drugs - things that have nothing to do with unsafe driving. People with money pay off their tickets and are done with the courts. When people don't pay, a minor ticket can set off a chain of problems, like for Angel Hinton, who also came to the center for help.
ANGEL HINTON: I always parked in that same place for two years. They never ticketed my car.
SHAPIRO: Hinton had a small janitorial business. Money was tight so she challenged the parking ticket she got outside of a suburban office building she cleaned on Sunday mornings. But the unpaid ticket meant she couldn't renew her car registration. She then got more tickets for expired tags. She missed a court date. She says she wasn't notified. That triggered an arrest warrant. And one day, she got stopped by police, pulled out of her car and handcuffed in front of her young daughter. Without a license, she could no longer drive to the places she cleaned.
HINTON: This basically ruined my life. I mean, I was to the point that I'm building my business, I'm growing, and now I'm back to depending on public assistance.
JIM GRAMLING: People should pay their tickets, no doubt about it. They should be held accountable for what they've done that violated the traffic laws.
SHAPIRO: Jim Gramling is a former municipal court judge. He helped start the Center for Driver's License Recovery - retired on a Friday, started working as a volunteer lawyer on Monday.
GRAMLING: But, at some point, a balance has to be introduced into this. And the balance is if people don't pay because they're low-income and can't budget that expense, what's an appropriate penalty?
SHAPIRO: He says most judges never ask people if they have the money to pay traffic tickets. So he argues for alternate penalties, to let people pay in small monthly amounts or arrange for community service instead. And the retired judge lobbies state lawmakers to end the two-year suspension on failure to pay a ticket, a penalty longer than the suspension for drunk driving or hit-and-run driving.
GRAMLING: Don't let those suspensions sit on low-income people and prevent them from getting the license they need to get to and from work, get a job or just live like everybody else.
SHAPIRO: Municipal court officials declined to speak about the policy of two-year suspensions, but the threat of losing a license does push people who can pay to pay. Still, a new analysis of city records by the nonprofit Justice Initiatives Institute, says there's no evidence that the long suspensions stop people from driving and getting more tickets. Mostly, the report says, the two-year suspensions just put poor people more in debt. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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