How 7 Million People have been Penalized for being Poor
More than 7 million people nationwide may have had their driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay court or administrative debt, a practice that advocates say unfairly punishes the poor, a Washington Post analysis found. About 10 percent of that total involved residents of Virginia, Maryland and the District.
MANY STATES IN THE U.S. SUSPEND PEOPLE'S DRIVER'S LICENSES, EVEN THOSE WITH SAFE DRIVING RECORDS, SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY ARE TOO POOR TO PAY THEIR TRAFFIC TICKETS OR COURT COSTS.
Such wealth-based schemes not only trap our most vulnerable citizens in a vicious cycle of poverty, but they make no sense. Unable to drive, people often lose their jobs or have a hard time finding employment, making it even more unlikely that they will be able to pay their debts to the state. Furthermore, residents with suspended licenses cannot fulfill daily responsibilities like taking their children to school, caring for elderly family members, or going to the doctor’s office.
City officials congratulated themselves on squeezing money out of the citizens they were supposed to serve.
“Our investigation found instances in which the court charged $302 for a single Manner of Walking violation; $427 for a single Peace Disturbance violation; $531 for high Grass and Weeds; $777 for Resisting Arrest; and $792 for Failure to Obey, and $527 for Failure to Comply,” a 2015 Justice Department report found.
But The Post’s analysis revealed that there are many places that need to reconsider how they punish people. Hawaii, Kansas, Vermont and Virginia each has suspended the licenses of more than 9 percent of the adult population for debt or associated issues.
The government is trapping people in a cycle of poverty, making it even more unlikely that they will ever pay back the court debt that led to the suspension in the first place. Lawbreakers must face consequences, and police need to keep the streets safe. But ruining poor people’s lives is not the way to do either.
Equal Justice Under Law is on the forefront of the movement to end this discriminatory practice and restore driving rights to thousands of Americans living in poverty. We currently have class action lawsuits pending in Michigan and Montana.