by Jessica Eaglin, Counsel, Justice Program, Brennan Center for Justice
Protests in Ferguson, Mo. led to investigations that uncovered a deeply problematic justice system that pulled thousands of people into a web of criminal justice debt and aggressive debt collection practices. Among those harsh enforcement practices: Driver’s license suspension for failure to pay court-imposed debts. Using driver’s license suspension to enforce debt payment is not unique to Ferguson. Today, driver’s license suspensions are a frequently used tool to enforce collection of criminal justice debt.
“Criminal justice debt” refers to the accumulation of fees and fines that a defendant acquires while being processed through the justice system. Fees and fines may be imposed for anything from restitution to make the victim whole to punitive fines designed to deter future wrongdoings. Most commonly, courts impose user fees to recover operating costs. These fees are imposed at various stages throughout the process; including charges for bookings, jail stays, prosecution, public defense and probation services.
Fees and fines do not disappear once a person has been convicted and incarcerated. Rather, those costs linger. When combined with other debts most people face – credit card debt, child support and insurance payments, for example – the additional costs of criminal justice debt can be difficult or impossible to pay. In California alone, there is more than $10 billion in uncollected, court-ordered debt.
Enter collection enforcement, such as suspension of a driver’s license. It is growing in popularity. In 2010, the Brennan Center reported that at least eight of the 15 states with the largest prison populations suspended licenses based on missed debt payments: California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. At least four states suspended licenses for failure to appear in court for an arrest warrant, the underlying cause being failure to pay debts. In the Lone Star state, individuals convicted of a drug offense have their licenses suspended for 180 days. In Florida, a drug conviction leads to license suspension for one year. Nationally, 40 percent of license suspensions are for unpaid traffic tickets, unpaid child support and drug offenses.