A bipartisan bill has been introduced in the Senate that would end a program that prohibits states from receiving federal funds for highway projects unless they agree to suspend the driver’s licenses of individuals with unpaid debts.
The “Driving for Opportunity Act” was introduced by Sen. Chris Coons [D-Del.] and Sen. Roger Wicker [R-Miss.]. According to the senators, more than 11 million individuals across the United States have had their driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid fines.
“Driver’s licenses enable millions of Americans to travel to and from work, their children’s schools, doctor’s appointments, and places of worship,” Sen. Coons said in a statement. “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 Driving for Opportunity Act would end this practice that traps our most vulnerable populations in a cycle of debt while lifting an unnecessary and counterproductive responsibility from our police departments at a time when they are already carrying too heavy a burden.”
Five states have ended the policy of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines since 2018, but 42 states nationwide still do so, according to the Senators. Suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid fines amounts to punishing individuals who do not make enough money to pay their debts, according to those endorsing the bill, which include a number of civil rights and advocacy groups. In New Jersey, for example, 42% of those who had their licenses suspended for non-driving-related offenses lost their jobs and 45% of those who lost their jobs were unable to find a new job, according to one study. Looking at it from another perspective, Washington State calculated that state troopers spent more than 70,000 hours in 2015 dealing with suspensions for non-driving offenses. Arresting one person with a suspended license takes up as much as nine hours of an officer’s time, when calculating all the paperwork that is required.
“Taking away people’s licenses simply for driving-while-broke is bad for the economy, bad for public safety, and disastrous for so many families,” said Priya Sarathy Jones, National Campaign Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, in a statement. “Policymakers must take urgent action to stop this cycle of poverty and punishment that’s fueling mass criminalization, economic inequality, and racial injustice.”