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License suspension keeps people from paying off court debt

by | Nov 14, 2022 | Criminal Defense

If your driver’s license were suspended, what would you do? What could you afford to do? You’re not allowed to drive on a suspended license, but you have to get to work. Could you afford to take a Lyft or Uber every day? Is there public transportation? Could you arrange a carpool?

There may be ways to avoid driving much of the time, but sometimes there just aren’t. When it comes down to it, lots of people have little choice but to risk driving on a suspended license. They simply can’t find a viable alternative method of transportation to get to their job.

So it’s almost ironic that Wisconsin, like more than half of the states in the U.S., suspends driver’s licenses for nonpayment of certain debts. These debts include things like court fines and fees, restitution to crime victims and unpaid child support. You have to work to pay these debts, most of which can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. You have to work, and you have to drive if you want to work.

According to the policy organization Vera Institute for Justice, approximately 11 million people in the U.S. have had their licenses suspended for unpaid debt. Many of them are still driving.

If they are caught, they will almost certainly incur more debt in the form of fines and court fees. The more often they get caught, the more they will owe. The cost of license reinstatement goes up. It’s a never-ending cycle of debt and more debt.

Unfortunately, because People of Color are stopped by the police far more often than whites, their chance of getting caught is higher. It ends up being a tax on the poor and minorities.

“The current system is not working. No one’s paying the tickets, no one’s paying the BMV reinstatement fee. This isn’t lost money. People just don’t have the money to pay,” says one prosecutor.

Some jurisdictions are working to end the cycle

In some jurisdictions, such as Marion County, Indiana, prosecutors are well aware of the futility of the problem. License suspensions aren’t a harsh but effective measure that gets criminal justice debt collected. They’re just a harsh, ineffective, counter-functional disaster. Most of the debt generated by the license suspension cycle is never repaid.

Marion County’s prosecutor worked with nonprofits to hold workshops where people could get their criminal justice debt reduced or waived. The county has helped over 2,000 people get back to driving legally since 2019.

That’s great. However, it’s just helping people who have already been hurt by the system. We need to move away from a system that criminalizes poverty and focuses so much energy on people who pose little risk to public safety.

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