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COMMENTARY | Punishing people for not having enough money to pay fees not only poses constitutional problems, it creates counterproductive budget policy.
Millions of people in the U.S. currently have their driving privileges suspended—not because they’re dangerous drivers, but simply because they can’t afford to pay a ticket or fine, often for a minor infraction.
In a rare showing of bipartisanship, lawmakers across the country are taking action to stop the counterproductive practice of suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid debts.
In just five years, 22 states—from Mississippi and West Virginia, to New York and California—have passed major reforms to curb debt-based driver’s license suspensions. In Michigan, bipartisan legislation to end automatic driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees passed with near-unanimous support in December and was signed into law at the beginning of this year. As it takes effect, it will halt an unnecessary practice that affected more than 350,000 people in Michigan. A promising U.S. Senate bill, the bipartisan Driving for Opportunity Act, could incentivize more states to follow suit by providing them with federal grant dollars.
For some people, a traffic ticket is just a nuisance. But for many Americans, receiving one can kick off a harmful chain of events. Inability to pay can lead to driver’s license suspension and a tough choice: stop driving—and lose access to work and basic necessities—or keep driving, and risk more costly fees, arrest, and even jail time. Policymakers in Michigan, for example, found that driving on a suspended license was the third most common reason people went to jail.
Without driving, many people can’t get to work, take their children to school, or get an elderly parent to the doctor. Businesses are deprived of a reliable workforce. And, in the end, people have a tougher time earning the money they need to pay the fines and fees to get their licenses back. Ensuring drivers have valid licenses and insurance is critical to everyone's safety on the road.
But needlessly taking away licenses from economically vulnerable people not only prevents them from paying their court debts—it undercuts their ability to support themselves and their families. Americans’ household debt (which includes medical bills and credit cards) has tripled from $4.6 trillion in 1999 to $12.29 trillion in 2016, and debt collection lawsuits dominate civil court dockets—debts stemming from court fines and fees only pile on the economic pressure.
And driving is such a necessity in most places that 75% of people continue to drive after their license is suspended. If they get pulled over, they can be arrested and jailed. And even a few days in jail can lead to job loss and housing instability.
Punishing people for not having enough money to pay fees not only poses constitutional problems, it creates counterproductive budget policy. Suspending driver’s licenses is one of the least efficient ways for the criminal justice system to recoup its costs. When people are given the option of affordable payment plans, they are much more likely to pay fines and fees. State budget managers saw collections increase significantly, for example, when California replaced license suspensions with income-based payment plans.
State lawmakers are trending in the right direction, but there’s still much more to do. As the country emerges from a pandemic that has punched holes in both state budgets and the personal finances of Americans, the time for more thoughtful and effective debt collection policies is now.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include new information about how many states have passed major reforms.