Driving for Opportunity
For most Americans, having a driver’s license seems like a no-brainer, and for good reason. It is often considered the primary form of identification a person holds once they reach their state’s driving age. A driver’s license provides us with access to employment, mobility, and benefits. In every state, it is an acceptable form of identification, whether you are buying a bottle of wine, adopting a pet, picking up a prescription, or opening a bank account. For states requiring voter identification, a driver’s license will always be accepted.
The simple truth, in the words of Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), is that “Americans need access to vehicles to work and to care for their families.” However, there are over 11 million driver’s license suspensions in the United States, many of which last years, if not decades. These suspensions are not from poor driving. They are based on a person’s unpaid fines and fees to the government. Commonly referred to as “debt-based driver’s license suspensions,” they occur when you fail to pay a variety of citations or municipal violations or when you are fined through your contact with the criminal legal system. These policies disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities.
They also harm women. More often than not, women will be the ones who step in to shoulder the burden when a family member loses their license. When an individual can no longer get around alone, drive to work, the grocery store, doctor visits, and school pick-ups, all the day-to-day responsibilities are likely to fall on the already-full shoulders of a woman.
Debt-based driver’s license suspensions criminalize being poor. They disproportionately inflict hardship on people who are already struggling to economically prosper in our society, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and punishment. And the pandemic has only underscored the problem. As stated by Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), “at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder for Americans to pay their bills and care for their families, taking away someone’s driver’s license can make it nearly impossible to hold down a job and therefore pay back their debts.” The impact ripples through families, impeding the economic security of mothers, sisters, and wives.
Fortunately, Americans are coming together to abolish the policy. The Free to Drive national campaign is working to end debt-based suspensions in every state. In the past three years, 15 states have changed their laws. Senator Wicker’s home state of Mississippi banned the practice altogether in 2018.
My organization, the Fines & Fees Justice Center, has worked with Senator Wicker and Senator Coons to introduce the Driving for Opportunity Act, a bill that supports states working to end these policies. It is a shining example of bipartisan, federal leadership on a problem that does real harm to Americans. The bill and broader movement to end debt-based suspensions enjoy support from organizations across the political spectrum: the left-leaning ACLU and right-leaning Americans for Tax Reform stand side-by-side with the Fraternal Order of Police, the National District Attorneys Association, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. It is rare to see so many organizations and legislatures across the country unanimously agreeing that a policy is not only harmful, but also counterproductive.
The good news is that unlike so many of the challenges facing our country, here, the answer is simple and everyone is on board: we need to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions. Getting licenses back in the hands of drivers whose only barrier is not having enough money brings opportunity and access back into all our communities. If we are trying to make this country work better for everyone, this is a great place to start.
Priya Sarathy Jones is the National Policy and Campaigns Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
We couldn’t agree more! Some of the new state laws are aimed at making voting more difficult, especially for people of color and economically disadvantaged people. Arranging things so that people lose their driver’s license because of unpaid fines and penalties is just a subtle way of keeping people who can’t pay their fines, i.e. poorer people, from voting. We didn’t know there was a Fines and Justice Center, but thank goodness there is and that you are directing it!!