Criminal Justice

States Can’t Afford to Take Away People’s Freedom to Drive

In 2017, Mississippi became the first state in the country to stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees. Former Governor Phil Bryant and the legislature understood that if you want someone to pay, taking away their means of getting to work isn’t the solution. Since then, nearly half of the states—red, blue, and purple—have followed the Magnolia State’s lead to stop or significantly reform their driver’s license suspension practices.

In the past five years, 25 states have ended or significantly reformed the practice of license suspension for unpaid fines and fees. And while remarkable progress is being made, some states have recently tried to undo these reforms. Just this past session, the Mississippi legislature threatened to reinstate driver’s license suspensions for unpaid court fines and fees. Though unsuccessful this session, such legislation would have hurt Mississippi families while increasing barriers to courts collecting fines and fees imposed. Montana and West Virginia have also attempted to bring back this ineffective and harmful policy.

While the practice of suspending drivers’ licenses has existed for decades, there is no evidence to support the claim that it is an effective tool to collect debt. If people are struggling financially and can’t drive due to a suspended license, commuting to work to support themselves and their families becomes much more difficult.

In Phoenix, Arizona, over half the people whose licenses were suspended for unpaid fines and fees lost their jobs in 2016. In a 2006 study focused on Wisconsin, researchers found that, for individuals receiving public assistance, having a valid driver’s license was more helpful to finding employment than having a high school diploma.

Additionally, license suspensions do not result in higher collection rates for unpaid fines and fees. As stated by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, “there is no empirical evidence suggesting that people comply with requirements because their driving privilege was suspended as a result.” For example, one recent study found no statistically significant difference in collection rates after comparing the years Tennessee stopped suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment of fines (2018-2021), with the years the suspension laws were intact.

In Texas, a 2021 study conducted by the Fines & Fees Justice Center found no significant difference in the amount collected per case between city courts that used driver’s license renewal holds and city courts that did not. In fact, cities that did not use license holds collected an average of $45 more per case than cities that did. In the year following the end of driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay a traffic ticket in California, on-time collection across the state improved by 8.9 percent. And a 2019 report from the Idaho Office of Performance and Evaluation  stated that there was “no clear evidence” that the Idaho legislature’s elimination of driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay infractions had any impact on collection rates in 2018.

Clearly, enacting blanket license suspension policy to enforce unpaid court fines and fees is a misguided pursuit of justice, unsupported by data. Driver’s licenses should be suspended only for dangerous driving offenses like DUI’s and hazardous driving behavior. Holding bad actors accountable should not come at the expense of those unable to meet a financial bar.

Lawmakers should look to the ALEC Model Resolution in Support of Limiting Driver’s License Suspensions to Violations that Involve Dangerous Driving, for guidance and should aim to reform their laws to empower hard-working residents support themselves, their families, and to contribute to the prosperity of their state.

In Depth: Criminal Justice

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